Do You Have a Sentimental Yearning To Tell Stories About The Past?

slide of frstival

On Thursday evening, July 4th, my friend Jillian came with me to a fabulous event in the annual Glen Eira Storytelling Festival.

Not only was the event free but they put on a cuppa and delicious choice of biscuits if you turned up before starting time and plenty of us did that!

I no longer work at Godfrey Street in Bentleigh where I used to encourage my students to enter the writing competitions (and in past years a couple got guernseys!) however, my Facebook feed alerts me to Glen Eira Council posts.

They have some great events – the last one I attended was all about fashion of the Regency Period and Jane Austen.

For anyone writing recent family history (Jillian) or stories about or based on their own life (me), Thursday’s event was a great shortcut for historical detail, reminders of what Melbourne’s suburbs used to be like and a way to generate ideas to turn your life into interesting fact or fiction with specific research done by people passionate about the past and with an established following for their writing.

Nostalgia and the ‘Burbs

libby presenting
Libbi Gorr with Eamon Donnelly, David Wadelton and Aron Lewin

Award-winning television and radio broadcaster, Libbi Gorr hosted a panel of contemporary artists and authors with research, websites, and books devoted to cultural observations of our changing suburbs.

Libbi, currently, on ABC Radio Melbourne Weekends was known as Elle McFeast in the 90s. 

Lisbeth Joanne “Libbi” Gorr is an Australian broadcaster working in both TV and radio. Gorr is also an author, voice artist, writer and performer. She first came to prominence with the satirical television character that she created called “Elle McFeast”.

 Wikipedia

With her comedic skills to the fore, Libbi introduced herself by saying she looked up the meaning of Libbi and it was a wallflower, so she chose Elle because in the 90s the model and magazine was associated with long legs and great tits.

She explained that if you wanted to know her job on ABC Radio Melbourne think of her as the Waheed Ali of the weekend except she has a Jewish background, or Miranda Kerr after a feed and Oprah on Crack…

She was a young Jewish girl growing up in Murrumbena, a suburb ‘not quite Caulfield’. Her father originally, from Shepparton but his family escaped the pogroms of Russia. Her grandfather came to Australia at the same time as the Myer family but he worked on the Snowy Hydro scheme.

Sidney Myer’s family got the Sidney Myer Bowl, her father got a fruit bowl – Shepparton.

Libbi’s mother born in Caulfield – a pharmacist like her mother – ‘two generations of druggies’. Her father owned a petrol station, Gorr Automotive so Libbi said, ‘she could sniff cocaine or petrol’…

Libbi’s introduction, placing herself as a local with a connection to place important for the ‘home crowd’ – and it was a crowd – in excess of 100 people packed the room. Not a bad turn out for a winter’s evening.

 

 

The blurb on the invite about ‘burbs said:

As corner milk bars disappear, video stores shut their doors and quirky suburban houses and landscapes give way to gentrification, a group of writers, photographers and artists have set about capturing the quirks and nostalgia of our changing suburban landscapes.

Join us for an evening of cultural observations from the ‘burbs, trips done memory lane and some musings on the very strange phenomenon we call nostalgia.

Why is Nostalgia important?

Before Libbi introduced the panel she mused that Carl Jung answered that question when he studied how childhood experiences are cemented as unconscious memories connecting us to our past.

Our unconscious is the part of the mind containing memories and impulses of which we may not even be aware.

Jung talked about ‘collective unconscious’, a term to represent a form of the unconscious common to mankind as a whole and originating in the inherited structure of the brain.

We all have experienced premonitions – a sense that we know who is on the phone before it rings and we pick it up. We all have had deja vu, that feeling we’ve been somewhere before…

Jungians, almost by definition, tend to get enthused anytime something previously hidden reveals itself when whatever’s been underground finally makes it to the surface.

Carl Jung founded the field of analytical psychology and, along with Sigmund Freud, was responsible for popularizing the idea that a person’s interior life merited not just attention but dedicated exploration — a notion that has since propelled tens of millions of people into psychotherapy.

… Jung, over time, came to see the psyche as an inherently more spiritual and fluid place, an ocean that could be fished for enlightenment and healing.

Whether or not he would have wanted it this way, Jung — who regarded himself as a scientist — is today remembered more as a countercultural icon, a proponent of spirituality outside religion and the ultimate champion of dreamers and seekers everywhere, which has earned him both posthumous respect and posthumous ridicule.

Jung’s ideas laid the foundation for the widely used Myers-Briggs personality test and influenced the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous. His central tenets — the existence of a collective unconscious and the power of archetypes — have seeped into the larger domain of New Age thinking while remaining more at the fringes of mainstream psychology.

The Holy Grail of The Unconscious, Sara Corbett, The New York Times, 16/9/2009

Nostalgia is a sense that connects and cements us all and Libbi wanted the panel and the audience to consider what we get in a community when we share it or live it…

speakers being intriduced Frankston milkbar
Jessie Scott, Eamon Donnelly, David Wadelton, Aron Lewin and Libbi Gorr

The Panel

Jessie Scott, video artist and author of The Coburg Plan. Jessie is doing her PhD – the subject, video stores. She has researched many, interviewed owners and customers.

Eamon Donnelly, artist, photographer and author of The Milk Bars Book. Born in Geelong, the family moved to Melbourne. He began to take photos of places/shops. Many are now defunct and others are disappearing fast. He spent 15 years documenting change before publishing his first softcover book. A cultural artisan, his hardback book was on sale for the evening.

David Wadelton, a contemporary artist, photographer and author of soon to be published, Suburban Baroque.

 Aron Lewin, journalist/writer – recording football and real estate, chronicling progression of Melbourne shops, a Real Estate reporter. He set up the Tales of Bricks And Mortar website https://talesofbrickandmortar.com/author/alewin1/ after collecting stories about longstanding shops, restaurants and cafes across Melbourne.

Projected in the background were slides taken by the panel and whenever a familiar shop appeared, a murmur of recognition rippled through the audience.

I nudged Jillian when a picture came up of a milk bar in Edithvale and one in Seaford – several of my students have mentioned these shops in their stories.

Edithvale milkbar in background

David Wadelton – Documenting Transition

Abandoned shops, shops replaced with apartments, empty blocks… places symbolising change and loss all interest David. Change over time affects not just buildings when factories are replaced by apartments, shops on a local strip disappear or are replaced by a shopping centre…

He was fascinated by how different postwar migrant housing was compared to traditional Aussie houses. Old weatherboard home extensions added a top storey of brick to make houses look more European. The decor and colour schemes inside were soft furnishings and souvenirs from ‘the old country’.

He has photographed milk bars, newsagents, fish and chip shops… Lightbox signs: ‘sweets and smokes’ in Footscray; an adult ‘newsboy’ in Northcote,  small Barbershops in business 50+ years with souvenirs of their European homeland and their adopted homeland on the walls and counters.

He has a picture of Thornbury Espresso slide, Hattams clothes shop still with a sign ‘we take bankcard’…

David has a following and audience on Flicker, Instagram, and Google’s YouTube – he has made the transition from traditional print to digital.

speakers david and Aaron

While David was talking I thought about the milkbar that used to be at the end of Albert Street Mordialloc before several adjacent shops were demolished and turned into an ugly block of flats.

Several people tried to make a go of the business, impacted by an expanded Safeway supermarket and a new Jewels Supermarket built in Main Street. An elderly couple ran the milkbar in 1984 when John and I moved into Albert Street.

It was not long before they retired and it was bought by a man who owned another shop in Warren Road. He installed his son and a mate to run the shop before a retired army officer, originally from Wales became the last manager.

Albert Street changed dramatically in the early 90s – a petrol station/garage demolished for a nursing home, washing machine repair shop transformed into a hairdressing salon and the milk bar and mini hardware shop demolished for a block of flats. Several stand-alone houses made way for units.

Aron Lewin – Writing Poems About People and Places

Aron saw a picket fence shop and wondered who would start a shop like that, how long would it last – and it inspired a poem about why and how… and he got an idea for a website.

He went to interview the owners but they were not interested. However,  from there he looked at other small business owners in the area, shops in a strip – proprietors all knew each other with most shops around 40 and 50 years. In fact, the owners were local identities.

He focused on ones that stayed in the same place for years because he wanted to capture their stories before businesses closed and disappeared as they will…

He was fascinated by what motivated these business owners, why did they choose their particular trade/product/lifestyle? What were their challenges, successes, failures? How did they see themselves in relation to the community?

He took photos with his mobile, then teamed with a proper photographer. He aimed to interview ten people but now has fifty stories!

From a small beginning, his enthusiasm and passion to record the stories and details of old shops across Melbourne propelled and grew into a big project. It’s all about connections and relationships with a local community – stories about the butcher, the baker, the barber… recorded before the people and places disappear.

A slide of Franks Bakery, Elsternwick flashed onto the screen eliciting lots of noises of recognition from the audience and Libbi. 

‘Aw, Frank, lovely man – been there forever.’

Aron said, ‘ I saw a sign couple of days ago. It’s closing.’

‘Oh, no!’ gasped Libbi, ‘is this true? Does anyone know?’ she asked the audience.

There were murmurings and Libbi googled to check if there was anything on the Bakery website – as did others on the panel and in the audience!

are they googling the Elsternwick bakery closure?
everyone checking Google?

Jessie Scott – Extracting meaning From Unloved & Neglected Sites

A video artist/photographer, Jessie’s PhD is about Video Stores. She grew up in Moonee Ponds and the western suburbs. So many small places are disappearing, the renowned Olympic Donut place is gone and street after street subjected to gentrification with the real estate boom.

At university, she rediscovered video shops when she was studying video art and did an assignment, her Miraculous Ribbon Project. Slides of Colac Video and Network Video shops that existed then but those stores are either closed and empty or gone now.

No longer the  ‘Home Entertainment Experts’.

A Video Ezy shop was her local store. She got a text message to say it was closing and having a ‘fire sale’. That moment was when she realised how painful nostalgia felt because part of her childhood disappeared when that store closed.

People congregated to discuss, gossip, share news in the video stores. Staff would point out good movies – there’d be discussions, it was a social and family place.

Video Stores were often the first point of contact with a broader culture for people.  Nowadays with the explosion of the Internet, there is access to whatever you want but when she was growing up it was a family outing to choose your entertainment for the weekend.

Jessie’s talk reminded me of the two video shops we had in Mordialloc. Most of the time, John took the girls to choose their movies – $5 for the latest release (if they were lucky), or more likely a selection of the weekly $2 ones. (I’m talking ’90s.)

Captain Beaky’s store was their favourite and the owner nicknamed the girls ‘the horror queens’ because they loved hiring the latest horror movies – Buffy the Vampire Slayer popular!

The man in the other store on the opposite side of Main Street was nice and friendly too. Just as well because when we returned from a holiday once, the friend looking after our house and dog forgot to return the videos and left them where Goldie decided to treat them as toys she disliked.

When I offered to pay for replacements, the Video guy just laughed and said not to bother because accidents happen. Obviously, a dog lover or no one else had our taste in videos.

speakers Jesse and Eamon

Eamon Donnelly – The Milkbar Man

He was born 1981 in Geelong, his happy memories as a child are of copper coins in his back pocket as he rode his bike or walked to the milkbar to buy some lollies or ice cream.

His favourite milkbar run by the Hawkings Family.

Milkbars had colour, warmth, sounds and smells – sweet aromas – lollies, ice creams, and the owners knew everyone. They also sold cigarettes and often newspapers.

He is nostalgic for the 1980s. In the 1990s, his parents sold their renovated home and moved to Melbourne suburbia. Their new suburb did not have nearby milkbar but a golf club as a substitute.

Eamon went to university and studied graphic design and art. He returned to Geelong to take photos of his old family home and didn’t recognise the area: the family home altered, several milk bars gone – some had old signage left, others the building vanished.

He started to record Geelong first, then Melbourne – so many small businesses closing but iconic brands and typography remembered by lots of people.

Milkbars made milkshakes and spiders – many also provided school lunches being a nearby tuck shop (one even called the milkbar that).

He got a story in The Age about his first book – a soft cover book. Jenny, the daughter of one of the milkbar owners – the Hawkings – Googled him and got in touch. She loved the photographs and they corresponded.

He experienced a ‘Full Circle Moment’ – he was invited to meet the family and the Hawkings remembered the Donnellys. They met and had dinner and reminisced and discovered so many incidents were their life or the life of family members and friends crossed.

Eamon started to interview families because lots of people got in touch after the first book came out and he saw the need to save their stories.

David listening to audience member

Audience Response confirmed we love to indulge in Nostalgia

A young woman introduced herself as Phyllis.  She grew up in a milkbar and her father is in Eamon’s book.

She got emotional and apologised. Her dad passed away two years ago so the book is a treasure, ‘ I come from a Greek background, Dad was Greek.’

Libbi asked how she managed not to gorge on lollies and Phyllis laughed. ‘Dad was Greek, he said, if you steal lollies, I’ll cut your hands off, and I believed him!’

Phyllis then went on to say how much she admired her father and others like him who had little or no English when they arrived in Australia yet still ran a business.

How did they do it? Her father couldn’t speak enough English to learn or remember customer’s names but called them by descriptions like ‘giraffe lady’ (a woman who was really tall). He remembered customers that way.

She believes the milkbar building is still there in Elsternwick but now an Indian restaurant or perhaps a dodgy hamburger place!

Eamon remembered Phyllis’s dad and said there is a beautiful black and white photo of him behind the counter in his shop. He remembered how he was always smiling when he greeted customers.

A man in the audience shared a story too.

His uncle had a milkbar in Swanston Street in Melbourne city just before Bourke Street. It was a cafe too and ‘served Aussie tucker: bacon and eggs and chips.’

He used to help his uncle during holidays by selling toffee apples.

His parents had a milkbar in Huntingdale Road near Huntingdale Railway Station and in the 1960s, it was one of the busiest milkbars in Melbourne.

He ran the milkbar at 15 years old because his father got ill. They made sandwiches for nearby factories which proliferated at that time in Huntingdale. They opened from 6am – 10 pm but got a sleep-in at weekends and opened at 8.00am.

Because of some quirk in the law, they couldn’t sell groceries after 5.00pm but bribed the inspectors.  They’d board up shop and after the inspection open up again. The inspectors went away with a carton of cigarettes or large salami sausage or something similar. They also sold sly grog – brandy – an inherited side of the business from previous owners.

He remembered they sold sanitary pads, which were wrapped in brown paper in those days. Ladies would come into the shop and ask to be served by his mother. She would come and duly serve them but yell to him, ‘Get a packet of pads for the lady.’ 

Local shops provided entertainment, produce and local news!

David has been chronicling architecture of the 70s 80s 90s. Other buildings, as well as shops and milkbars, fascinated by their nostalgic and iconic status. 

His focus on the broader conspicuous change – they were on every street corner, they personify and represent change on a broader scale – no room for family businesses anymore.

Regarding the houses of migrants of that era with taste-defying interiors, garish colour schemes, eccentricity and clash of ideas – this is vanishing. Everything homogenised today, everything the same – colour schemes beige and shades of beige!

We are seeing a homogenising of culture, tastes have radically changed. He is just documenting but sees so much slipping away. His mission to record a way of life vaporising before our own eyes.

What contributes to the change?

  • Employment laws have an impact:

Contracts, transient and casual employees, staff constantly changing in franchise stores like 7/11 so no attachment to customers, no special relationship like with milkbars and small family businesses.

  • No sentimentality with 7/11 and similar franchises

Convenience stores have prepackaged mixed lollies – no choosing your own,’ one of these, two of them…’ The signage generic, the atmosphere different.

You remember the place and the people in a family business, you are cemented to it even if an employee.

You chat and value the conversations, reflect on relationships that extend beyond the shop – perhaps go to school with children, attend the same church… the shop an extension of that community.

EXHI021708.jpg
one of David’s photographs, National Gallery exhibition

Do relationships stay in the shop or do they exist and extend beyond that boundary?

Eamon said the Hawking Family became friends and a connection developed with the project but people do get displaced.

Jessie said one of the video store owners she interviewed was so well-liked by his customers that some volunteered to keep the store open while he went out cleaning to earn enough to keep the store afloat. 

Unfortunately, the store eventually had to close. Many people say they regret stores closing and miss them after they have gone but don’t patronise them to keep them viable.

Another audience member volunteered her story. She lived and worked in a local shopping strip and most of the business owners were Holocaust survivors and WW2 migrants.

They frequented shops where they could be understood, where people spoke their language and knew their culture – Jewish shops, Romanian, Polish, Scottish.

Everyone knew each other – it was a community for new migrants.

She worked in a milkbar in Malvern in the 70s, so did her sisters.  The downside was she couldn’t ‘buy cigs on the sly’ because they knew her parents.

She recalled how milkbars were referred to by their stock: a Peter’s milkbar, a Streets’ milkbar even one referred to as the weird guy you wouldn’t visit – especially on your own!

It was a night for confessions.

A man in the audience said he attended Mt Scopus College and with the help of milkbar in Armadale, he started a profitable enterprise.

He and his mates bought lollies at one price and then sold them for an inflated price from his school locker. He raised money for bands like Sky Hooks to visit and play at lunchtime concerts at school. Chocolate buttons and snakes were the most popular lollies!

When Libbi asked did Netflix and other digital technology kill video and going to the movies there was a muted response.

A man suggested that it is a change in culture and we are distancing ourselves from our neighbours so don’t blame technology because we take it up – it is a choice.

Years ago, on hot nights people sat in front gardens or on verandahs and talked to each other. Pre-television they went for walks and talked to each other.

Fences have become increasingly higher built between properties. First tall fences then security gates, even on unremarkable houses that would not be immediate targets for thieves.

A woman said that times may be changing again because of rules in some of the new estates in places like Pakenham, no front fences are allowed and side fences must be a certain height. Different councils have different rules.

Libbi asked:

DO YOU KNOW YOUR NEIGHBOURS?

Sadly, many people don’t know their neighbours citing new development, ageing and the movement and shifting of the population as reasons.

A woman who grew up behind a fruit shop said someone should do a story on the demise and change of fruit shops.

Libbi asked if she was a Cincotta and the woman said, yes. Her family owned businesses in East Malvern, Murrumbeena and Hughesdale.

Fruit shops have been absorbed into supermarkets and the trade absorbed by multi-nationals and the changing trends like organic fruit and vegetables – all big business nowadays.

ceramic art piece
Transformations 1992 by Julie Begg – ceramic art in foyer Glen Eira town hall

Has Cafe Culture replaced the Milkbar’s Role?

There is a strong cafe culture today and it is a parallel culture to the old milkbars with regular customers. The cafes are often on street corners, many developed from converted milk bars.

They are a modern social hub. For example, in Northcote, the milkbar on the corner is now a cafe – it’s about loyalty.

An Inkerman Street milkbar taken over by a cafe. They kept the name and signage, use old fashioned china crockery – a contributor to future nostalgia.

In milkbars, relationships were built and they were a meeting place for people in the neighbourhood – many cafes fulfil a similar role – providing familiarity and friendship.

ailsa oconner's sculpture
“Ourselves when young” bronze by Ailsa O’Connor  in foyer Glen Eira Town Hall

Glen Eira Town Hall

The evening had to end but people were reluctant to leave and as Libbi thanked the panels and organisers she pointed out how important a community hub is to keep the spirit of community alive and to help people belong and feel part of a place.

These events Glen Eira put on don’t cost a lot, you feel comfortable, you’ve been with people and interacted in a meaningful way,  and because it is local there is little or no travelling time…

We were all given a paper bag of mixed lollies on the way out … the reminiscing, the discussion, the relaxing warmth …

The evening proved we do yearn to share stories of the past and Nostalgia and the ‘Burbs a great success!

Well done Glen Eira Council!

If you have a story of a milk bar or other local business please share it – I have a list of stories I can write or add detail to ones already written to include milkbars:

  • I tasted my first Choc Wedge at a milk bar in Croydon 1962
  • My first trip alone on a bicycle was to the local milk bar in Croydon 1963

 

 

Mr Bailey’s Minder -a play about growing old disgracefully, being disgracefully old… and something much deeper!

noticeboard for play

On Saturday, I went to the matinee session of the Mordialloc Theatre Company’s latest play at the Shirley Burke Theatre, Parkdale.

My theatre buddy, Lisa cancelled because of ill-health but I am glad I didn’t let that or the wintry weather, which caused sudden and severe squalls, to convince me to stay at home in the warmth – although it was tempting!

Now I’m ‘retired’ it is easier to stay at home, especially in winter and by the demographics I’ve observed who support the MTC and the smattering of empty seats on Saturday, the cold weather and perhaps the lethargy of age took its toll, which is a pity.

The play was enjoyable, the ambience in the theatre welcoming, and you get free coffee/tea and biscuits at the interval.

In fact, if so inclined you can buy a glass of wine or sherry before the play starts. Saturday definitely, chilly so I’m not surprised many people took that option.

See this play and support your local theatre

Mr Bailey’s Minder is on until the end of the week!

theatre ticket

Of the three productions I’ve seen this year, this definitely gets a thumbs up from me and considering the response of the audience, others also agree.

  • Maybe it is because this is the first one this year by an Australian playwright and so the actors didn’t have fake American or Canadian accents.
  • Maybe it’s because I can relate more to the themes which are not only current and relevant but emotionally engaging.
  • Maybe it’s because of the actors – apart from a bit of nervousness at the beginning, their interactions were believable and entertaining.

This is the promo blurb:


blurb for play

However, discussing the play at the interval with one of the volunteers another lady joined the conversation and when I said the subject matter was interesting and topical she said, ‘Ah yes, elder abuse.’

A reflection perhaps because we are in the middle of a Royal Commission into how we treat people in Aged Care and there are stories galore about abuse in the media.

But Mr Bailey’s Minder is much more than a story about someone growing old and being mistreated or fearing mistreatment.

All the major characters in the play have fears and emotional scars – not just Mr Bailey.

We are all ageing or know someone who is and if we live long enough must face declining health and death.

We all have or will have a life to reflect on with good and bad decisions, successful or unsuccessful relationships, haunting memories of the warm glow kind or filled with regret.

Many of us have had experience with someone in the family coping with alcoholism and/or dementia and family estrangement is common too.

The play mines a rich field of life experiences.

Therese, as the title suggests, is the ‘Minder’ or carer, and frequently, takes centre stage. Her story, one of a need to belong and be valued – and to value herself – a contrast to Leo’s life of celebrity status where being a ‘famous artist’ resulted in Leo overvaluing himself! (as others did too!)

scenes from play 2

Leo Bailey (Eric Hayes) is a drunken ‘has-been’ artist suffering from decades of alcohol abuse and self-indulgent misbehaviour. He’s offended, hurt or neglected friends, several ex-wives and all but one of his children. His past is confronting – what he can remember of it, or how he remembers it, which varies depending on his mood or awareness.

Now he is facing death – and he is astute enough to know it will probably be alone.  He must also cope with the realisation that he’s lost some of his artistic abilities yet boasts how valuable his signature still is – even on a blank piece of paper (be intrigued).

Only his daughter, Margo (Juliet Hayday) continues to visit him and manage his affairs, despite being subjected to a barrage of abuse every time she steps into Leo’s home.

Margo has remained dutiful although she can’t escape the bitterness of unhappy memories of childhood spoilt by her celebrity father’s behaviour.

In the opening scene, the much-maligned Margo meets Therese (Julia Landberg), a young woman desperate for work and the latest in a long list of Leo Bailey’s minders.

We learn how ill Leo is, about his obnoxious behaviour, plus how dementia has heightened his disagreeableness.

Margo who works in investment banking does not ‘pull any punches’ regarding her father. In fact, she repeats the well-worn cliches –

  • Old people abandoned in nursing homes must look no further than their own past behaviour.
  • Abusive drunks reveal their true self – it’s never just the drink talking.
  • Adults must take responsibility for their behaviour whether they’re a celebrity or not

Therese, cagey about her past, is worried Margo will check her references. She doesn’t expect to get the job, yet in her desperation behaves alternately, belligerent and defensive. She is feisty and a survivor.

Leo comes downstairs, he is at his alcohol-sodden best, insulting Margo and Therese and accusing them of wanting to take his home and independence.

Disagreeable is an understatement.

(Interestingly, “Leo’s” lines or actions alternated between outrageous, wily astuteness and downright insulting, but a group in the audience loudly appreciated Eric’s performance – indicative that the actor who is a Life member of MTC has a following!)

The final major player to add to the emotionally scarred cast appears later.

Karl (Aaron Townley) a tradie who comes to remove a mural and repair a wall. His life is as difficult and broken as the others. He’s paying off a debt caused by an ex-business partner and recovering from a marriage breakdown caused by same debt.

Needy and lonely,  Karl continues to visit to do odd jobs after establishing a friendship with Leo and Therese who manages to get her charge to give up drinking and begin to make amends to those he has mistreated by writing letters of apology. They even start going out and visiting parks and museums.

Of course, there are sub-plots and a minor character (also played by Aaron) who will make your blood boil and an all-important twist that good drama provides.

The necessary conflict to keep an audience interested is delivered – with a couple of realistic physical scenes, which had me worried because Eric wasn’t using make-up to age!

Each character also revealed an inner conflict through actions or dialogue at some stage.

theatre program

The Playwright, Debra Oswald. 

Wikipedia tells us that Debra Oswald is a screenwriter, playwright and fiction author. She was the co-creator and head writer for series 1-5 of the award-winning Channel Ten series Offspring

Mr Bailey’s Minder and The Peach Season both premiered at Griffin Theatre Company. Mr Bailey’s Minder toured nationally in 2006 and premiered in the United States in 2008 at The Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. 

When it was first released, a review said, the play

grapples with how much latitude we’re prepared to give artists we consider to be blessed with some kind of genius. It also explores the separate journeys of three individuals committed to creating a place where they can belong.

The play may also promote discussion about past behaviour and caring for ageing parents whether they were celebrities or not.

The worship of celebrity, of course, seems to have intensified in recent years. A prime example is in the acting profession where TV creates celebrities frequently, with actors who study the craft and perform on stage often overlooked or not given the recognition, they may deserve.

In this social media age celebrities flourish, however, in the future they may pay the price for their behaviour much earlier or burn out quicker.

The publicity social media gives that makes it easier to make celebrity status, also makes it easier to punish or shatter a celebrity. And with the Internet – everything is on record whether it has been edited, doctored, embellished, made up…

Plus we have an ageing population. Debra’s play will remain topical and relevant for some time.

Stagecraft and Set Design

scene from play 1

The set design and construction depicting Bailey’s disintegrating home above Sydney Harbour is eye-catching and memorable. Martin Gibbs, the Director and set designer is to be congratulated.

The various scene changes facilitated seamlessly by three exits – a door through to a kitchenette, the ‘front’ door and a staircase that led to the bedrooms and much-mentioned bathroom. The music accompanying each scene change setting the relevant mood and the lighting used to great effect to signal the passing of time and a new day.

So, add a bit of spice or emotional angst to your day and catch a session of Mr Bailey’s Minder you won’t be disappointed and it will do what all good art does – make you confront various aspects of the human condition – especially your own.

PS

A note of caution – if like me, you have experienced a loved one whose personality changed because of dementia, ageing, or a combination of both, or have experienced family estrangement, make sure you have a tissue in your pocket… you never know what triggers an emotional moment… this play just might hit the spot.

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A National Writing Day Motivates the Muse

mordi beach 2016.jpg

I’m on holiday from classes until July 30th and in my FB feed the Scottish Poetry Library announced June 26th 2019 as ‘International Writing Day’ with a link to https://www.nationalwritingday.org.uk/

Whether international or national – it is wonderful to have a writing day and that’s what I did, sharing Wednesday with a dear friend first met through the Mordialloc Writers’ Group.

Sitting at the kitchen table, we talked about writing goals and then wrote some poetry.

We both had discovered old notebooks containing poems written years ago and discussed how many versions need to be written to ‘get it right’ – and how it never is!

Have we improved or were those early words better? Did the words come easier then? What makes a ‘good’ poem?

We both agreed that in some cases, our poems recorded life and how we felt – a bit like journalling and many poems reminded us of past events we’d forgotten.

Other poems explored language, exercised our imagination, captured a moment or were a bit of fun …

shoes for chronic pain

Searching for Words and Meaning…
Mairi Neil

In writing class
we explore language
seek living words
lively words
alive words
volume high
sentencing each other
to work it out
or perhaps not
just listen, absorb and be
explore the language
search for words
taught in childhood
read in books
overheard on the train…
volume doesn’t matter
one sentence or two
from me or you
language exploration
job description
happiness prescription
research for a living
search for meaning
out-search a life
my sentence
to teach
writing in class…

sunset

Port Campbell Sunset With Mary Jane
Mairi Neil, 1995

We stand together to watch the sun go down
sharing a marvellous miracle –
the silvery-white ball now a shade of pink,
a glowing mandarin, yellow tint, then red
and settling seagulls strutting by the water
appear to blush, blending with the foaming tide
flowing in with a rush

The fiery sphere radiates brilliant orange
colour spreads across the sky, the orb starts to
slip
slowly
seawards
silently
sinking

This forehead and eyebrows of a sleepy giant
jaundiced
floppy
fluid
flaccid
pliant

Until suddenly, the sky explodes aflame
our hearts pound
the sky astounds
The sun a misshapen balloon
Disappearing fast
going
gone
too soon…

A semi-darkened sky of colourful pools, puddles,
mere splashes mid-air
Was that brilliant display ever really there?

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A Note To Kingston Council
Mairi Neil, 1999

(responding to a report in the newspaper of a resident weeping as a gum tree aged 100 years old was chopped down to make way for new development)

A concerned citizen stood weeping
wringing her hands in despair
but the chainsaws grind and gobble
so another block’s laid bare
gum trees go that once grew tall
shading homes for a hundred years
those living links to the past
chopped down despite her pleas

Eucalyptus gums are indigenous
native grasses and bushes too
home to a thousand insect species
and native birds becoming so few
where one house stood in a garden
two units are built – or more
imported trees, shrubs in fancy tubs
surrounded by a concrete pour

Developers have their dreams
And indigenous trees get in the way
‘Clear the land of all vegetation –
especially big trees,’ what they say!
Bulldozing through regulations
and done with unseemly speed
‘We own the land now and have rights,’
but neighbours see only greed.

Some developers say they deserve thanks
After all, they’ve ‘improved’ the land
sanitised lawns introduced boutique trees
concreted paths added buildings grand!
Individual rights must be paramount
because the ‘ME’ mentality rules
environmentalists caring for community
are soft-hearted, irrelevant fools.

Who cares about rangy, old gums
that provided shade and privacy too
Who cares about a balanced ecosystem
and that birds and butterflies are few?
If YOU care about what is happening
In community streets and suburbs
Then speak up, get involved, write letters –
and counteract the Real Estate blurbs!

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Winter Stillness
Mairi Neil, 1996

A winter’s morn
white mist hides the sun
shrouding treetops
birds twitter unseen
Was it the coldest night?

A walk to the station
familiar path unseen
cold air, chilled bones
a bleak beginning
to another day of toil

At the railway station
commuters huddle in silence
but aboard in warmth a thaw
familiar faces smile greetings
cheerful chatter melts winter blues

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The World Loves PowerPoint
Mairi Neil, 1996.

I got a CDRom to make an interactive PPP
this multimedia task completely confounds me
I sit with mouth agape marvelling at the show
from Encarta ’96 – so much I don’t yet know

I don’t know how computers work
the science and technology a wonder
the subliminal flickering of the cursor
disappears off screen – oh, my blunder?
Clicks and movement directs this brain
finger muscles used again and again
activating programs seems a breeze
but this technology can be a tease
my hands don’t appear to accept the hype
as on the keyboard they stumble to type
and repeat out-dated typewriting rules
trying grammar and spelling used at school

I got a CDRom to make an interactive PPP
This multimedia task completely confounds me
Bill Gates and Microsoft what have you started –
my confidence and sanity swiftly departed!

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A Winter Walk in Woodland
Mairi Neil, 1997

The winter day cold but not drear
unusually, warm for this time of year
we choose a walk through the woods
and frost-hardened leaves crack
the path piled with fallen snow
our boots stain the pristine track

Children run ahead to climb steep hills
curbing their enthusiasm a battle of wills
they’re keen to explore and with innocence
embrace the wild creatures in this place
but most are hiding, nowhere to be seen
hibernating while of summer they dream.

The children lament the ‘waterfall’ too small
a mere trickle of water, no cascade at all
plus modern development is eating the wood
motorway and shops gobble habitat for good
landscapes changed, altered beyond repair
rivers dried – the trees weep in despair

At an old canal, hopeful enthusiast rebuild
boxes to protect dormice with optimism filled
Mother Nature resilient, she can adapt and adjust
but nurturing people’s help a definite must
tiny snowdrops gleam – such a welcome sight
of unspoilt beauty to hold in memory tight.

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I Never Thought
Mairi Neil, 1998

When we first met
I never thought
we would lie side by side
in a large comfortable bed
and not drown in passion
maturity and familiarity
take their toll

Our bodies still tingle
when hands caress
but we have grown
comfortable and content
seeking thrills less often

It is enough to know
desire and satisfaction
still exist

I never thought
we would lie side by side
and talk of mundane matters…
doors to be painted
garden beds to be weeded
leaky taps to be fixed
seams to be mended…
yet we do not rush
to start a project
or worry a task
is incomplete

It is enough to know
there is tomorrow

I never thought
spending a morning
with you puzzling to solve
a cryptic crossword
and I puzzling to
write a poem
would create a warm inner glow
provide contentment and pleasure

Our past… and imagined future
flows easily between us
Our love has a comfortable silence
as well as public vows

It is enough to know that you are here.

 

 

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I Love Cooking (after Dr Seuss)
Mairi Neil

I love cooking, I love the smell
I love it more when it turns out swell
I love old recipes, they are the best
I gather ingredients and begin with zest.

I love my oven, it’s electric. If it was gas I’d be sick.
I love my bench top, granite and wide, equipment sits side by side.
I think my cooking is okay, there’s not much more I can say.
I’m not an expert like some boast, I’ve been known to burn the toast!
There’s people who just love their food, always categorising, bad or good.
I eat to live, variety’s not king, a few favourite recipes are my thing.

I’m happy to bake my apple cake. I am.
Can even manage scones, cream and jam.
I love to peel, dice, chop and knead.
It’s from cleaning up I want to be freed.

I love cooking – it’s a necessary evil – we have to eat.
But boy I’m glad – really glad – Nandos has opened up the street

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Here’s to more National Writing days!

 

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Visit Shetland with Sunglasses & a Sense of Adventure

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Arriving at the port of Lerwick

We are experiencing a colder winter than usual this year and as I shiver, Facebook reminds me that two years ago I enjoyed warm spring weather in the UK including the lovely two weeks experiencing the Absolute Orkney & Shetland Islands Escape with several days spent in Shetland.

I’m now revisiting that time in Shetland while continuing the journey of going through boxes of past writing and teaching files to ‘clear out clutter’.

Recently, I discovered one of the first poems I wrote when I moved to Mordialloc and attempted to fulfil a dream to be a writer.

Whether scribbled poems (and this one was pre-computer days for me) or journal notes, the words, like my Facebook posts and photographs catapulted me to another place, another time – in many ways – another me!

The Change of Seasons
Mairi Neil, 1992

A winter’s day at the beginning of June,
who would have thought it cold so soon?
The hum of the fan as the gas fire burns
lifeless clothes drip on the hoist as it turns
the breeze gentler no more leaves falling
but the plaintive cry of cockies calling
to be released from their caged captivity
a monument to mankind’s insensitivity.

The cold weather outside, wet and bleak –
where is the sunlight we all seek?
My neighbour traps birds to keep for pleasure
others destroy the environment to amass treasure
I frequently criticise but no action take –
is my concern for social justice all just fake?
The silent majority murdered the Vietnamese
a radical student, I demonstrated with ease

Like winter’s rain, my protests poured down
on the heads of politicians – even the Crown.
There are always Vietnams, wrongs to be righted
has motherhood, mortgage, my conscience blighted?
Puddles on the concrete quiver and ripple
Raindrops plop like intermittent spittle
Was I more effective when young and carefree?
Persistently protesting – no one silenced me!

Perhaps mature responsibilities have weakened my voice
the business of raising a family offers limited choice…
When young, I felt strong like the rain – now I’m spittle
still caring deeply, yet doing too little
Can I blame it on SAD – sunlight deprivation
And be like a bear, accept temporary hibernation?

Winter Nights In Front of The Telly With Jimmy

On Sunday nights, a new series of the television series Shetland is broadcast. The crime drama has amassed an international audience since it began in 2013. Its popularity due to the excellent adaptation of award-winning crime novels by Ann Cleeves, a location, which provides plenty of stunning coastal scenes, strong storylines, and good acting.

Douglas Henshall plays Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez, the main character and in a recent interview, he agreed that the collection of around 300 islands lying between Orkney and the Faroe Islands, at the area where the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea meet does intrigue and excite viewers.

“Not only because it’s beautiful but because it’s like another character in the show,” he said. “I think people are drawn to the place because they imagine themselves there.”

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Westray shoreline and cliffs – sunglasses a must!

Cinema is all about suspension of disbelief so it may come as a surprise to viewers that many scenes in Shetland are filmed in Glasgow, Barrhead, Irvine and Ayr – hundreds of miles away in the lowlands of Scotland, in places resembling Shetland!

They just have to make sure no stray trees wander into the shot because trees are still not prolific on Shetland – although that is changing!

 

There was certainly a time when Shetland was almost devoid of trees. Old photographs from the early 1900s show a strikingly stark, bare landscape, even in and around settlements.

Whilst it’s true that large tracts of the islands lack tree cover to this day, there’s no doubt that things are changing. In part, this is because of a concerted effort by public bodies to plant more trees over recent decades… 

Archaeological investigations have revealed that Shetland once enjoyed extensive tree and shrub cover, with species such as willow, downy birch, hazel and alder appearing in the pollen record. The real reasons for the lack of trees are to do with clearance for firewood and the presence of sheep, which have prevented natural regeneration. Where sheep are excluded, trees grow with little or no shelter.

Judging by the number of trees sold by local garden centres, not to mention the continuing work of the Shetland Amenity Trust, the Shetland landscape will continue to evolve; around settlements especially, we can expect it to change as much over the next generation as it has in the last one.

Alastair Hamilton, My Shetland, 2015

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In June 2017, when I visited Shetland, I still had fun looking for familiar sites from Season 1 & 2 of the TV series, the only seasons released in Australia before I left.

And last night watching the final Season Six, not yet released free to air in Melbourne, it was satisfying spotting places I visited, beaches I walked on, houses or ruins I stood beside contemplating ancient Shetland!

I visited Jarlshof one of the most remarkable archaeological sites ever excavated in the UK spanning Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages to Middle Ages.

No part of Shetland is more than 3 miles from the sea and everywhere the landscape is stunning.

Jarlshof
Mairi Neil

Gulls cry overhead
circling rugged cliffs
and ancient rocks
the remnants of a long-ago
but not forgotten past…
The constant motion
of waves crashing,
massaging, and chipping as they
accompany the wind song –
wild background music to
settlement, farms and crofts…
I imagine a family watching
the horizon with anticipation
the tempestuous sea surging,
the creeping mist of dawn.
Watching with hearts filled with hope
for a returning fishing fleet
or do they tremble with trepidation
at warships ploughing through
the tumultuous waves
to claim a land not their’s?

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the ruins at Jarlshof spanning the late Bronze Age through to the Middle Ages

I don’t read a lot of crime fiction nowadays but often love the TV adaptations, particularly when Ann Cleeves’ great characters like Vera and Jimmy Perez, come to life or Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Alan Hunter’s George Gently and of course Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple.

I can thank my mother for introducing me to Agatha Christie and another of her favourites, Georges Simenon’s, Maigret. I still have several old hardback novels decades old that I should declutter because if the truth is faced, I won’t read them again.

However, they are a link to Mum and a period in my life when I virtually read a book a day commuting by train to work on the old Red Rattlers from Croydon to the City so I just can’t part with them – yet.

I even watch the repeats on TV with several reincarnations of Miss Marple to argue over who is the best and although Peter Ustinov did a fine job in the movies, most people agree that David Suchet has now made Poirot his own.

I’m biased towards British crime novelists and their television adaptations. Many of them character-driven and tackling society’s issues and a bigger picture than petty crime or one issue. They are not just police procedurals (although there is plenty of that), but explore the social reasons for crime, not just the crime itself.

They show justice is fluid and the ones set in particular periods of history mark the effects of social change – or lack of it! They examine the human condition in a way most of us experience and/or comprehend. Who isn’t flawed?

The all-important conflict necessary for gripping fiction is flawed characters and their struggles to come to terms with the world, whether external or internal. Good novelists and screenwriters of the quality of Shetland dish it up in wonderful dollops!

Shetland has examined the rise of populism and the extreme Right, people smuggling and sex-trafficking, social isolation, bigotry, child abuse and the effect of oil and gas discoveries on environmental pollution among other hot topics.

However, one of the best storylines included a character who Ann Cleeves said she wished she had written – Tosh, a female detective who is raped in the line of duty.

The way this tragedy is handled and the arcs of various characters in Shetland are examples of fine writing and storytelling.

Along the way, we learn about life in a close-knit community, where everybody almost seems to know of each other – not hard in a population of 23,000.

As a comparison, I think of the City of Mordialloc before it merged with Kingston in 1994. In an area of 5.25 square miles, there was a population of almost 28,000. A dramatic difference in population density to Shetland’s archipelago.

When I mentioned on FB that I was standing outside the house in Lerwick used for Jimmy Perez, and then posted pictures of other houses used in the series with ‘a murder committed here‘… ‘another crime scene‘ … a friend referring  to the ABC’s Dr Blake Mystery series commented,

Is there anyone left alive in Shetland? It’s a dangerous place, like Ballarat…

Indeed!

A bit like the popular English series Midsomer Murders where picturesque English villages harbour murderers and serial killers who knock off the local population at an alarming rate…

However, be assured Shetland locals are friendly and welcoming as this poster in Shetland dialect on the Library noticeboard says:

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Lerwick Library

And as this article from a local paper relates, Shetland has produced female writers who don’t necessarily delve into the dark side of human nature…

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All the people I came into contact with were wonderful and I’d return in a heartbeat.

I think at this time in my life, a place like Shetland appeals because I can imagine myself in a cottage, tending a garden and writing – no need for bright city lights anymore just a haven to indulge an inner search for peace and serenity!

I made a lovely Canadian friend, Linda during my trip and we still keep in touch hoping that one day we’ll meet again – either in Melbourne or Vancouver.

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Linda and Robina with Linda’s house on Bressay in the distance

Our guide for Shetland was Robina Barton, an expert on history and geology and also the Labour Party candidate for the north, which is held by the Liberal Democrats. (She gave him a good shake in 2017 elections!)

I found her a most obliging and generous guide similar to those I experienced one-to-one in Mongolia and Russia. Enthusiastic, knowledgeable, caring guides who added so much to my extended holiday.

Robina met Linda and me at the ferry terminal and although there was a schedule for the day, she was more than happy to take us for ‘a cup of tea’ where we discussed whether we wanted to stick with the planned tour or do something else that suited our interests and mood.

With mutual understanding, the day went from good to great and helped colour my view of Shetland – I mentioned already I would return in a heartbeat!

In the photo below we were interrupted in our orientation stroll by a man offering free boutique chocolates – now that’s what I call hospitality! A chef who had just moved to Lerwick, he was promoting his soon to be opened restaurant.

chef offering us chocolates

WELCOME TO LERWICK

Lerwick is Shetland’s capital and takes its name from Old Norse Leirvik meaning muddy bay. Sheltered by Bressay over the water – where Robina lives. I could see her house from my hotel window and said goodnight to her twinkling lights after a super day.

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Robina’s house on Bressay – just up the hill from her Liberal Democrat opponent – but they are all great friends on Shetland!

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The natural harbour attracts a wide range of visiting craft and a large cruise ship came in adding to the constant stream of ferries, fishing boats, and working craft from the oil rigs. Also a few moored ‘Viking’ long boats because of course, Shetland celebrates Up Helly Aa – the Viking Fire Festival in mid-winter January.

Lerwick, only officially named the capital in the 19th century, building on the trade from the Dutch herring industry. From a scattering of huts on a shoreline track, the busy Commercial Street developed surrounded by tightly packed narrow lanes. Later, new docks were created north of the town to accommodate the fishing fleet.

The characteristics of the buildings, brickwork and flagstones different from anything seen in Melbourne and many a lot older!

The largest ship built in Lerwick was the barque North Briton in 1836 at Hay’s Dock, now home to the Shetland Museum and Archives. There are models of typical Shetland Boats and to keep alive traditions, festivals are held and displays.

For me, the innovative incorporation of boats in buildings and gardens very appealing, but considering my forbears were all sailors and fishermen from the Isle of Skye, I loved learning about Shetlanders and the sea too!

Facebook Post, June 16, 2017

The Kveldsro House Hotel harks back to another era with Reading Rooms, relaxing lounges and shoe shine machines in the corridor. The bar even has a stained glass sign for Gents and of course, the Ladies Powder Room is some distance away!

There are plenty of tasteful furnishings and interesting artworks. The staff from Portugal, Ecuador, Greece and even Scotland 😆

I have been fortunate with all of the places I have stayed this trip.

Atop a hill and across from Shetland’s highest mountain we found where rocks crack and explode and create a moonscape. Robina a mine of information on the geological formation of Shetland.

Wildflowers blooming, sheep bleating, salt in the air and evidence of human habitation going back hundreds of years as sunlight glitters on the water like scattered gemstones.

Lunch stops are always interesting too, meeting the locals, getting to know each other, tasting Shetland delicacies. And a bonus when it rained while we were snug inside!

Different sides of mainland Shetland have different weather depending on whether exposed to North Sea or Atlantic .

We learnt a lot about geology today from Robina, our expert guide. The variety of rocks amazing. We also went on wildflower searches.

No view here boring and each pile of rocks intriguing – is it a broch, remnants of a tomb, a medieval or Viking village, a deserted croft from the cruel land clearances or collapse of herring fishing industry?

Is that of neolithic significance or a deliberate structure from WW2?

The Kveldsro House Hotel was comfortable and the staff pleasant. I usually had the same woman serving me breakfast, she was from Portugal and couldn’t wait to return home to the Mediterranean sunshine.

To do Shetland justice, I’ll have to write some more posts because although I didn’t experience any crime or startling epiphanies, I did learn some interesting history and a lot more about the natural world of birds and wildflowers.

We even got our ‘Viking’ on when we stopped at a restaurant for lunch that incorporated all things Up Helly Aa. After watching a video on the origins of the Fire Festival and reading reminisces of participants, we could dress up and let loose our inner Viking.

It was a fun interlude in a day that ended depressingly, sad – the Nightly News full of the Grenfell Tower Fire – an incredible tragedy hard to imagine.

I had spent some time in London with a friend when I arrived in the UK for this final leg of my journey and there were a couple of sisters at the hotel who joined our tour the next day who lived in London.

As you can imagine, news updates dominated the mealtime discussions over the next few days.

The horrors and brutality often associated with marauding Vikings wear a different mantle in modern times. Will those in authority whose greed, negligence and even deliberate contempt for others ever be held accountable? Death and destruction among the least wealthy and privileged in society a tale as old as time!

My next post about Shetland will definitely end on a more cheerful note!

 

 

Homegrown Stories A Success for Kingston Arts

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Now officially an aged pensioner and semi-retired from teaching creative writing, I made a promise to attend more local activities to feed my soul and keep engaged with other creative arts.

An easy promise kept because my friend, Lisa encouraged me to take out a yearly membership and go with her to see plays at Shirley Burke Theatre in Parkdale. The offerings have been mixed but I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Underground’ and wrote a review which you can read here.

I usually write a post if I enjoy something or it piques my interest. I’m not an experienced reviewer with any particular expertise but in the words of many an armchair critic “I know what I like!”

And I liked the sound of Six Moments In Kingston – Bus Tour.

Six Moments in Kingston is a public art bus tour that celebrates Kingston’s rich history. Responding to six infamous local stories, this ambitious public art commission features performances, music, street parades, broadcasts, sculpture and videos sited around Kingston. Audiences board a public art bus to tour secret locations where each story occurred…

Lisa didn’t want to go, so I booked for Sunday, May 19 but almost reneged because of the late night watching the depressing results of the Federal Election.

However, I am glad I made the effort because it was a fantastic couple of hours and lifted my spirits!

I even met up with some friends who were ‘a blast from the past’ and so returned home in a buoyant, jovial mood.

Thank you Kingston Arts!

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The event was advertised as the biggest public art program in Kingston and judging by the full buses and well-organised and resourced tour (repeated over two weekends so you still have a chance to book!) the logistics and potential for hiccups must have had the organisers biting their nails.

But the tour is seamless and heaps of fun from the starting point at the front of Kingston Arts Centre to the end, by the tent installation in the carpark of the centre.

Curators David Cross and Cameron Bishop, together with a stellar group of contemporary artists, lead SIX MOMENTS IN KINGSTON, a dynamic series of six public artworks set in sites around Kingston.

Each artwork responds to an infamous local story, including the mysterious disappearance of aviator Fred Valentich in 1978, following his sighting of a UFO; a celebration of globally successful Parkdale rocker Rick Springfield’s worldwide hit ‘Jessie’s Girl’; Phil Carman’s infamous head-butting incident at Moorabbin Oval, and the story of Julie Cooper, Moorabbin’s first female councillor and Mayor. And much more!

Hop on board a magical mystery bus tour to visit six delightful artworks in secret locations around Kingston! Each tour lasts under two hours. The bus tour features local stories told by legendary Australian actors, Michael Caton (The Castle) and Kate Fitzpatrick.

Six Moments – Six memorable Stories

tent installation one

While we waited for the bus two young women sat in a tent erected in the forecourt. This tent, linked to the installation in the Kingston Arts Car Park (both by artist Steve Rhall) and the story of the occupants told in depth when we were on the bus.

The installations, inspired by an event in 1982, honour Moorabbin’s protest histories. At this site, two homeless schoolgirls set-up camp outside the town hall to proclaim what should be a fundamental right to all people – shelter.

homeless protest Moorabbin 1982
Image credit: Silent Protest, archived by the Kingston Historical Society, source unknown.

It links to the work by artist Spiros Panigirakis, which refers to the removal of the historic ‘Grange’ homestead built on Kulin Nation land further down the road on Nepean Highway.

Whilst its future contested, the homestead became a squatter’s residence and at one stage it was suggested before its demolition, that it could become a women’s refuge or a hostel for the homeless.

However, the battle with developers was lost (sound familiar?) in 1983 and the Moorabbin Police Station was built and homelessness replaced in the news by other issues.

Story One – the Fundamental Right To Shelter – and to Protest

The bus drove us past the police station and as the story of ‘The Grange’ unfolded we learnt a little about the artist Spiros, his application to ‘paint the story of Moorabbin’s development on a purpose-built wall’ and the process of getting a Heritage Overlay.

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Image supplied by Spiros Panigirakis of the potential site for redevelopment

This project reflects on the divisive and contentious debates led by a number of interest groups – arts, theatre, youth groups, accommodation services and commercial enterprises – around the restoration of The Grange, a prominent settler homestead built in 1856.

Redeveloped in 1977, the Moorabbin Police Station now occupies the old Grange site.

The project considers the site, the edifice of the Moorabbin Police Station and the suburban home of Tony and Dimitra Panigirakis in Moorabbin. It explores the notion of redevelopment through a series of fictional redevelopment proposals for the current site of the Moorabbin Police Station.

Using planning documents, real-estate hoardings and other public platforms that announce proposed redevelopment plans, heritage issues and planning approvals, a series of developer’s hoardings explore the notion of who controls redevelopment.

Working with Kingston Council landscape architects and urban planners, as well as his parents iconic Moorabbin home, Panigirakis looks at the ways municipal bureaucracy mediates redevelopment ideas and architectural propositions.

The work culminates in a series of installations across Moorabbin, and the production of an artist’s book that incorporates administrative and visual documentation surrounding the journey of the project.

As someone who doesn’t drive, my visits to Moorabbin are via public transport therefore many parts of the area I’d never seen before. It was fascinating and enlightening.

There were examples of a variety of architectural styles and I assume, it is the heritage overlay that has protected neighbourhood character of some of the streets and prevented Hilston Grove’s transformation into a ‘pigeon coop city’ with hastily (and in many cases shoddily) built apartments that has afflicted much of Kingston.

In 1977, the Grange was set alight and in the same year Spiros was born – I liked how the stories of the young girls attempt to get the authorities to do something concrete about homelessness joined dots and linked to the fight to save the Grange examining the big picture of neighbourhood character and housing.

We listened to the deep and soothing tones of Michael Caton as he explained how the history of the country could be told through the prism of Melbourne’s heartbeat – represented by Kingston (lots of smiles at that) – and the six stories would reveal the culture and the history of the area between the years of 1976 and 1981.

He supported the artists’ assertions that the image of Moorabbin as ‘a sleepy suburb‘ in the late 70s and early 80s ‘disguises a politically charged population actively participating in international protest movements.’

I came to live in Mordialloc, now part of Kingston, in 1984 but lived in other suburbs of Melbourne for the latter part of the 70s. It was good to be reminded of some of the ‘Headline’ stories of past media frenzies and to consider how close to home the events happened.

Story Two – When Sport is Not Necessarily Sporting

I have to confess that most stories about sport – particularly sporting celebrities, leave me underwhelmed.

I played sport when I was younger and was captain of the hockey team at Croydon High School in the 1960s, played hockey for ANU Seconds in the 70s and for the B-grade team for the City of Croydon – I even played netball as a young mum at Mordialloc Community Centre until a fall and cracked sacrum made that inadvisable.

I am a team player but would rather play than watch sport and prefer the days when Sport was added to the News and not considered the main item.

My knowledge regarding the 1980 scandal of Phil Carman’s behaviour negligible – in fact, non-existent.

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Image sourced from YouTube – Video still, Phil Carman and Graeme Carbery, the footage was taken in 1980

The story revolved around Phil Carman who was one of the VFL’s most awarded players despite being frequently reported for bad behaviour.

Local performers explored an infamous head-butting incident between Phil Carman and umpire Graeme Carberry on Moorabbin Oval. This was filmed by video artist Laresa Kosloff and displayed on a large screen in the foyer of the club building.

Phil copped a year-long suspension and it was the end of his football career, which by all accounts was turbulent. He’d probably last one game nowadays!

Phil Carman was one of the VFL’s most brilliant players, dazzling spectators and developing a passionate following amongst fans in the 70s and early 80s. However, his career was marred by violent incidents, resulting in short-lived contracts with four VFL clubs.

This behaviour culminated in the 1980 season at Moorabbin Linton Street oval when Carman head-butted umpire Graeme Carberry, earning him the longest suspension in VFL history (20 weeks), and signalling the end of his career as a player.

Laresa Kosloff creates a choreographed video work with local footballers, exploring the gestures and symbols that characterise the Phil Carman incident and Aussie Rules football during the late 70s and early 80s…

Inspired by the ‘headbutt incident’ Laresa is currently working on an abstract interpretation of the moment that investigates the unique and universally understood language of sport.

Laresa grappled with finding a way to bring sensitivity and critical analysis to the moment without being dismissive or disrespectful to the footballing community. As with most of her practice, she navigates this thin line through carefully choreographed humour and slapstick comedy, keeping this quirky work accessible and open to all.

She has spent hours going through interviews and game footage and sketching the postures and movements inherent to the game. Through this process, she began to map out the language of gestures, emotions and the body universally understood to sporting fans across the globe.

Many of those on the bus obviously understood footy better than me and loved the video installation. I was more interested in seeing where tax dollars have been invested in this very new stadium.

As a first-time visitor, I found the home of St Kilda Football Club quite amazing and I’m sure the community is thrilled.

Our art tour interruption seemed to go unnoticed by the public intent on watching a game in progress.

No doubt the head-butt story filled the pages of local and state newspapers in 1980 and I am aware of recent controversies in sport but still have a lack of enthusiasm when some football stories (like who has a knee injury) are elevated to prime importance in the nightly news bulletins.

However, in display cabinets in the foyer, part of a Heritage Museum, the exploration of the club’s Indigenous connections is interesting with the stand taken by Nicky Winmar against racism a pivotal moment in the code.

Perhaps the subject of a future storytelling tour?

And of course, there is always the importance of what diehard fans bring to the spirit of the club.

In the 90s, when my daughters attended Mordialloc Primary School there was a yearly fundraiser revolving around Melbourne’s football teams and team colours replaced uniforms for the day.

On ‘Pie & Tinnie Day’, students bought a meat pie and can of soft drink from the Canteen and donated one and two cent coins by creating a line on the floor behind their footy team’s poster.

I learnt then how popular St Kilda was as their line snaked out the door. It was a team most in the Southeastern suburbs regarded as theirs.

Our household not footy enthusiasts but my daughter, Anne barracked for Footscray because they were called the ‘dogs’ and had a bulldog as their emblem. Devoted to real live dogs, which still are her favourite pet, she put her couple of dollars on the floor for Footscray.

However, I often had to rush home and grab John’s loose change from his bedside table so that Anne, who seemed to be the sole ‘doggy’ supporter wasn’t embarrassed by having the smallest donation line in the school!

There are consequences if you live in Melbourne you must follow footy and defend your team’s honour at all costs!

watching footy sunday morning

When we left St Kilda’s grounds, the bus turned onto the Nepean Highway near Wickham Road and I saw a few more streets I’d never seen before we entered a semi-industrial area.

Story Three – Fair Pay Worth Fighting For

On the bus, we heard the story of workers protesting for fair pay and better working conditions in 1979.

One of the strikers used his car to block access to the factory. A tow truck was called and while the driver was connecting up the vehicle, its owner stole his keys and threw them over a fence.

Although the original factory is gone, we were taken to the site and saw a re-enactment of

… an infamous incident involving a tow truck and physical struggles between constabulary and workers at the former Phillip Morris car park; a public art installation using illuminated LED boards and text developed with community consultation.

This project has been developed alongside The Gathering Place and Kingston Koorie Mob.

We stayed on the bus but the scene came alive through hearing the descriptions on the police radio and through conversations on the ground all played through the intercom on the bus.

Driving up to that area of Moorabbin, it struck me how high up we were compared to other parts of the city. It was an interesting perspective I’d not seen or understood before.

Story Four – Moorabbin Airport Mystery Remains Unsolved

On the way to our next stop, we were informed that Moorabbin Airport is the second busiest airport in Australia and the home of the Australian National Aviation Museum founded in 1962.

The first fact was interesting but not surprising – anyone who lives in Mordialloc will testify to the regular sound of aircraft overhead.

I visited the Museum years ago and knew friends who volunteered there and wondered how much it had changed because there was often appeals for people to get involved.

Frank Jones, who was a member of Mordialloc Writers’ Group served in the RAAF during WW2 and a short story he wrote was turned into a radio play and performed at the Museum so they were no stranger to getting involved in the arts.

But the story we heard on Sunday was a much more recent event and the enemy – if there was one – came from another world…

missing pilot
Image sourced from abc.net.au – front page of The Australian, Monday, October 23 1978, ‘UFO Mystery’ by Robin Southey

In 1978, Fred Valentich took off from Moorabbin Airport in a Cessna and within minutes, radioed sightings of a metallic object hovering above him and then there was silence!

It was a routine training flight to Tasmania but when he and his plane went missing it became the subject of so much speculation it entered the realm of the ‘Twilight Zone’ – the name of a popular TV Show of stories about the paranormal and aliens.

“It is not an aircraft.”

On the evening of October 21st 1978, nineteen-year-old pilot Frederick Valentich disappeared shortly after take-off from Moorabbin airport.

Before his disappearance, Valentich reported sighting a metallic aircraft moving at high speed. Reports further southeast noted a similar aircraft sporting multiple lights on its belly before transmission abruptly ceased. Valentich and his plane were never seen again.

Partnering with the Australian National Aviation Museum and the Victorian UFO Action Group, artist collective Field Theory will work with volunteers to tell the conflicting stories, myths and unassuageable mysteries that took this story to the top of Australian security organisations.

This interactive project drops the audience deep inside the many mysteries surrounding this story.

On the bus, making full use of the intercom again, we heard the conversation between the pilot and air traffic control, we also heard excerpts of the Minutes Of October 27, from the investigation into the missing plane with a conclusion ‘human factors’ played a significant role.

There was mention of the pilot’s low IQ, his failed exams and psychological assessments, his dream to be in RAAF probably unattainable and his stories of many flying activities a facade to impress.

On the 15th October, during a drive in the Dandenongs with his girlfriend, he was reported to have said if a UFO landed, he would go in it but ‘not without you’.

The authorities emphasised he often talked about UFOs and they worked hard to besmirch his character.

Why?

His girlfriend went into a hotel near where the plane disappeared and asked for the pilot by name. They’d arranged to meet at 7.00pm but he’d already vanished.

There were articles in The Australian about a clairvoyant and New Zealand author, Colin Avery who held a seance. He said he’d been contacted by Fred. His message being – I’m in space with aliens.

He told Fred’s father to go into his son’s bedroom and wait to be contacted. Unfortunately, there was a mix up with time zones!

Sixty seconds of the radio transmitted conversation is believed to have been edited with accusations the pilot claimed he was in a galaxy far away, no longer having a physical body but was with others chosen.

I wonder what really happened??

I wonder if this tree at the airport holds secrets?

tree with vines

Story Five – Who Knew ‘Jessie’s Girl’ Lived in Mordialloc?

Jessie's Girl a hit
Image sourced by Shane McGrath: Photo of Rick Springfield. Background: video still of Rick Springfield, Jessie’s Girl, 1981

The next story stop was perhaps the biggest surprise to me – it was a five-minute walk from my house and as the bus pulled into the parking lot at Central Bayside Health we heard the story of Rick Springfield and his hit record Jessie’s Girl, which ushered in the new pop sound – a generational hit record produced by an Aussie!

Rick hailed from the ‘aspirational suburb’ of Parkdale and often visited the family home in Melrose Street, a haven of middle-class suburbia. He held his wedding reception in the house and used it as a bolt hole with not much changed from his childhood except the corner milkbar now a beauty salon.

Kingston has produced many famous sons and daughters but none quite like Rick Springfield who, in a little known fact, spent his teenage years in Parkdale.

First a heart-throb and actor in American soap General Hospital, Springfield became internationally famous for his worldwide smash hit single, Jessie’s Girl, released in 1981. The song climbed to no.1 and went platinum in the USA and Australia.

Artist Shane McGrath and local musicians honour Springfield’s place in the rock pantheon, creating their own renditions of Jessie’s Girl in the streets of Parkdale, headed up by a phalanx of bull terriers, after Rick Springfield’s love for the breed.

The scene recreated was the promotional video Rick made and we marched behind the banner and a tambourine and flute band, singing along to a boom box belting out Jessie’s Girl until we were outside Rick’s house with “Rick” himself, led there by four dogs!

Apparently, each day there is a different musical band with a brass band promised one of the performances.

Regardless of the musicians, it is a lovely, happy, interactive interlude.

Story Six – the Final Flourish

protest quilt 2
Image credit for Featured image: Girls Just Want to Have FUNdamental Human Rights by Tal Fitzpatrick (2015) 50cm x 50cm

The last story featured was that of Julie Cooper who paved the way for women to enter local politics when she was elected Moorabbin City’s first female Councillor in 1976 and went onto being their first female Mayor in 1982.

A stadium named in her honour continues to be a point of contention.

Julie Cooper HTV card
Supplied by her family

On the 12th of June 1902, Australia became the first country in the world to give women the right to vote and stand for office.

However, in Moorabbin, it wasn’t until 1976 (74 years later) that the first female councillor, Julie Cooper, was elected. Julie went on to challenge the norms of local government and fulfilled another milestone when she was elected the city’s first female mayor in 1982.

Her groundbreaking achievements are today reflected in a Beaumaris stadium that bears her name and marks her role in creating opportunities for women in local politics.

As we returned to the Kingston Arts Centre we heard about Craftism – craft and activism combined to make social change – something dear to Julie’s heart.

Since the term craftivism was coined by Betsy Greer in 2003, the idea has blossomed into a global movement of like-minded makers who mend the fabric of society and make with meaning.

protest quilt 1

Textile artist Tal Fitzpatrick, along with local crafters practising hands-on craftivism, celebrates the contribution of female and gender non-conforming leaders and invited participants to take part in the struggle for gender equality.

A Melbourne-based artist who is curious about the ways craft can be deployed to bring people together and drive positive social change, Tal hosted a series of free craftivist protest banner-making workshops in Kingston during March and April.

Participants created a textile protest banner of their own. Materials were provided and these were the banners we collected at Moorabbin Station and carried and marched back to the Kingston Arts centre carpark to finish a wonderful tour!

We walked up Nepean Highway carrying the wonderful banners high led by Marcia chanting:

‘What do we want?’

‘Another election!’

‘When do we want it?’

‘Now!’

I think Julie Cooper would have approved.

In fact, I know she would because her daughter Mandy and family were there marching and Mandy Cooper and husband John are the friends I reconnected with and previously mentioned as ‘the blast from the past’!

Cooper Family

A selection of the banners will also be featured in an exhibition curated by Tal, called Crafting Resistance: Six Moments in Kingston at Kingston Arts Centre in September 2019 so if you can’t take part in a guided tour of Kingston’s streets and some of the stories they hold this weekend perhaps attend the exhibition – I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

our bus patiently waiting
The driver waiting with the patience of a saint!

Motherhood, Love, & Purpose

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A Mother’s Day Reflection

mother and pie quote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret Culkin Banning

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

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

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

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

anne's birth 2

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

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

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

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

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

In this picture, we are pregnant and ecstatic.

joh and me when I was pregnant with Anne

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

Lewis Carroll

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

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

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

Vector Illustration of a happy multicultural group of cute swaddled babies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pictures of mum and me me and mj

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

mothers day 1990.jpeg
Mother’s Day 1990

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

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

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

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

Agatha Christie

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

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

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

Honore de Balzac

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

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

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

Nurturing has never stopped from their early childhood…

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

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

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

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

anne me and mary 2018.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

season of our lives

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

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

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

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

Oliver Wendall Holmes.

Happy Mother’s Day to all!

Ill-informed Jingoism or Quality Journalism? Be Aware and On Guard.

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The Federal Election has at last been called and now begins 5 weeks of intensive coverage of the event by the media – some people have election fatigue already, including me – because we seem to have been in ‘election mode’ ever since Malcolm Turnbull was deposed midway through last year.

Certainly, many people have wanted an election and we’ve been subjected to the current PM’s style, where his announcements regardless of the subject have always included an attack on the Opposition leader, Bill Shorten MP.

Slogans or Substance?

It is no secret, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was in advertising before he entered parliament. He helped produce the three-word slogan ‘Stop the Boats’ and other soundbites that helped the Coalition win 2013 and 2016.

Therefore, as the respected journalist, author, and TV presenter, Geraldine Doogue observed the other night on the ABC’s The Drum, Australian voters, must take responsibility to seek out, scrutinise and digest the news and facts and make the most informed choice we can.

Will people do this?

There is compulsory voting in Australia but also fake news, misinformation, and selective reporting, if not downright peddling of misinformation.

It is imperative voters actively engage with the process.

Facebook-Clickbait-Smaller.jpgThe Social Media Factor

This is the social media age, the 24hour news cycle, headlines written for clicks regardless of facts, and a time where clever use of digital tools make the production of fake news and post-truth an hourly, never mind daily occurrence.

We have all been subjected to:

  • online scams,
  • robocalls,
  • mass text messaging and
  • blatant lying.

Scepticism and cynicism abound…

We’ll need more than luck to wade through the media blitz of the next few weeks.

I’m A Friend Of The ABC

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The motion passed at a public rally supporting the ABC July 2018 and endorsed by the ALP!

I prefer the ABC and SBS, The Guardian, The Conversation and reading journalists with a track record I trust.

I completely avoid the Murdoch press, most of News Limited and despise ‘shock jocks’ because they make a mockery of reporting and journalism.

A discussion with a friend revealed shared nostalgia for some of the voices of the past like Andrew Olle and the days when a well-funded ABC investigated topics thoroughly and produced groundbreaking and effective exposes regularly and not just occasionally.

I imagine it was these voices on radio and television and in the newspapers that influenced me to write and at one stage want to be a journalist as the following illustrates.

Trying to ‘do a Kondo’ and clear clutter, I discovered a folder with some writing from days at Croydon High School in the 1960s.

In Form Three or Four, I was fortunate to have Mrs Walker for English.  She was young, a recent immigrant from England where she had worked as a journalist, and she encouraged my love of writing.

I have a strong image of her chewing gum in class and apologising, ‘I’m trying to give up smoking, so please forgive me.”

My Fourteen-Year-Old Self

What is, as far as YOU are concerned, the ideal job?

I would like an interesting job where I could meet people, see places and do something different. I would like to spend my life as a journalist because I feel this fits the specifications.

With a wide scope of various fields, I think this job would be interesting.  I would be able to meet people and also be able to travel. I enjoy writing and I feel this job could never be boring.

The job is reasonably well-paid and I would like to eventually become a freelance journalist, be my own boss and write for my own pleasure as well as other people’s.

To choose where to work and live, to travel and write about my experiences would be my ideal job.

First Day of First Job

My first job was as an assistant in a Jeweller’s shop on Saturday morning. I stepped over the threshold of the doorway with a feeling of apprehension about the four hours ahead of me.

It was a cold morning and I blamed the chill in the air as the cause of my shaking but to look back honestly, I was just plain scared. The owners of the shop were friends of the family and I was worried, not only in case I did not live up to their expectations but also in case I would do anything wrong.

My first task was to dust the shelves, as well as to keep an eye on the other assistants and pick up a few hints on how to serve. The shelves were clustered with valuable glasses and ornaments and I could barely trust my shaking hands to lift up the fragile ornaments.

Talking to customers came easily but trying to sell items and handling large amounts of money made me nervous too.

Later On

I came cheerily to work, set about my tasks in preparations for the flow of customers. Daringly, clattered around as I dusted, talked merrily to customers offering suggestions for gifts as I now had experience. Nervousness disappeared. Became self-assured.

Explanation & Reflection

I remember, Mrs Walker, putting to rest my romanticism about choosing journalism as a career,

‘You’ll, have to do what the editor wants – and that may be covering the local Cat Show – even if you’re allergic to cats!’

The first job I wrote about was with Finchley Jewellers’ – a shop owned by the parents of ex-Human Rights Commissioner, Gillian Triggs who was studying at Melbourne University in the 60s.

Our age difference and study schedule meant I didn’t see much of Gillian or her sister Carol and our paths haven’t crossed since childhood.

However, my interest in writing and reading quality journalism has never faltered and I was disappointed that this year, ill-health made me miss the A.N. Smith lecture in journalism, held annually at Melbourne University.

Arthur Norman Smith was a founder of the Australian Journalists’ Association, served as its first general president and for five years as its general secretary. Thanks to a generous bequest from the Smith family, the prestigious A.N. Smith Lecture in Journalism is presented each year by a leading authority on some aspect of journalism.

There are always memorable speakers and I wrote a blog post after the 2018 lecture by Walter Robinson, Editor-at-Large of the Boston Globe and leader of the Spotlight Team’s investigations into abuse in the Catholic Church last year.

Today, I decided to post highlights from Sarah Ferguson’s 2015 lecture because I think they are most relevant as we go into this election campaign. You can watch it yourself on youtube.

Sarah is a Walkley Award-winning journalist and her documentary series on the Rudd/Gillard years The Killing Season broadcast in 2015.

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  • The Killing Season on TV had 1 ½ million viewers and another ½ million watched it on iView.
  • It was the highest rating show in its time slot since 2005 and beat commercial stations.
  • It also was watched by the 18-24 demographic like other ABC shows.

Why?

Sarah answered that question by saying it was high drama with themes of retribution delivered with feistiness. It discussed an unresolved dispute between Gillard and Rudd that confused many Australians. Why did Gillard depose Rudd in 2010?

They were both good TV performers and the ABC technical staff highly professional.

I wonder if there will be funding available to do a similar expose of the leadership debacles in the Liberal Party?

Not according to this Staff Notice last year and considering the budget cuts inflicted on the organisation this year!

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But what the public broadcaster and other news outlets deliver is not just about the ABC being starved of funds or even who owns the media and Sarah’s 2015 lecture was prescient.

Can we really handle the truth?

When The Killing Season aired on ABC TV, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott lifted his arms to the press gallery and declared “Thank you to the ABC”.

  • It was the ABC’s 4th landmark TV series on political leadership but will there be another?
  • Will our current and future leaders feel the same obligation of history?
  • Or will future leaders no longer trust their legacy to a media they don’t control?

While governments and major institutions found new ways to limit transparency – the media industry traded away its freedom to investigate for short term access.

Sarah asserted that there is a war on transparency underway and the media is colluding with the wrong side.

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Award-winning journalist and foreign correspondent, Peter Greste supporting the ABC

Freedom from Information- Australia’s War on Transparency

Sarah had recently returned from England where she had been living and working as a reporter, and researching and writing a book.

To lighten the mood before launching into her speech, Sarah commented on the dual citizenship saga embroiling Australian politics and said if she was deported she’d prefer to go to Essex, England her mother’s birthplace rather than her own, which was Lagos Nigeria.

She then talked about UK politics and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. The UK political scene was going through convulsions and it was having an interesting effect on the media in Britain and Australia.

Sarah attended the British Labour Party Conference – the first for Corbyn as party leader. He is from the ‘hard left’ – a throwback chosen because he was not a retail politician and as far removed from Tony Blair while still being in the same party.

The press described him as a ‘defrosted member of the Politburo.’ This view of Corbyn still colours the view many sections of the media portray of Corbyn.

The British public threw the spin of Blairism and the clones it produced out, and Corbyn promised straight talking, yet at the conference, Sarah observed, they still went for slogans. Albeit they were four words and not three, like Australia’s politicians.

Sarah elicited a laugh from the audience when she said one Tony Abbott slogan that never made it up on a billboard was his ‘Nope Nope Nope.’

(Except social media enjoyed memes of ‘dope, dope, dope’!)

Sarah considers politics better viewed through satire and how true is that of Australian politics!

After the British Labour Party conference, a satirist quickly commented. What is the only red thing Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t like?

The answer was the autocue.

Corbyn had delivered a wooden speech, obviously reading the autocue and when it said “Strong message Here” in bold and underlined – he actually read those words aloud with emphasis!

Below is the teleprompt in the ABC newsroom studio, Melbourne.

We have comedians like Shaun Micallef, Charlie Pickering, Tom Gleeson and Sammy Jay scrutinising policies and their effects on ordinary Australians better than many journalists.

They cut through the interminable spin and bullshit politicians serve up at the behest of their media advisors.

Sarah started with that story about Labour in the UK to lead into the question, what does this mean for Labor in Australia and Bill Shorten because the warp and weft of the political wings of the British and Australian labour movement share common threads.

New Labour of Blair is dead and buried yet this was inspirational to Kevin Rudd and his rise to power. In 2016, Shorten contested his first election as party leader and although coming close, he didn’t win.

Ferguson’s Observations in 2015 Still Relevant Today

Corbyn and his supporters are extremely distrustful of the mainstream media who disparage him at every turn. MSM makes fun of his clothes, his mode of transport – referring to his ‘Chairman Mao-style bicycle.’

But Corbyn is as equally distrustful of the BBC.

However, what Sarah observed was that Corbyn’s antagonism to the BBC was nothing compared to the then Tory PM David Cameron’s determination to go after the BBC’s blood, even although he is considered a small ‘l’ liberal.

This antagonism and disrespect of a public broadcaster’s role is the lesson Sarah wanted us to take from her story about British politics in view of the topic. “Freedom from Information- Australia’s War on Transparency”.

She reiterated the irony of Tony Abbott praising the ABC after The Killing Season was aired yet he’d assaulted the ABC’s independence and integrity over Q & A.

When it suited his politics he commended the ABC because The Killing Season exposed the machinations in the ALP for the leadership.

Would he say the same today after some of the documentaries and investigations have exposed his party’s shenanigans and failures?

Regardless of political viewpoint, the ABC should tell the stories important for Australians.

Sarah wants to tell compelling stories about and for Australians. She wants her political reporting to be incisive and would like to be a voice for the marginalised and those often forgotten.

Journalists should be able to ask questions of government and politicians just as there is an assumption you are allowed to ask questions of corporations.

But this ability/belief is under threat.

Will future readers accept the ABC has the right to tell their story without controls?

We have seen changes to media ownership laws and laws regarding security. 

And recently laws covering social media content have been rushed through parliament and supported by both major parties.

These changes have caused disquiet in parts of the community and there is a concern it could prevent any anti-government content being aired regardless of what politicians are in power.

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More and more politicians and businesses are managing the media.

When Abbott was in Iraq he had his own media unit that fed stories to mainstream media.

Mike Rand, Australia’s most popular Premier lured an advertising executive to control his media statements.

Rand posted his own media and press releases on social media. This information picked up and repeated as if he’d been interviewed!

Lazy journalists continue to cut and paste and copy information without checking its veracity.

Already we have the respective party leaders addressing the public in videos. They carefully select the background and message and without any pesky journalists asking awkward questions can lecture/smooth talk/spruik whatever they want.

Will people check the truth of what they say or remain rusted on or anti the person depending on their politics. Will they be judged on content or looks?

Digitisation

In 2015, there was a discussion about the new digital tools for future reporting. Some of these tools came from the Gaming world – they are virtual reality tools.

Sarah asked, do you want a reporter going into a war zone and/or refugee camp behaving as if it is all amazing or should it be with an attitude of curiosity and asking hard, relevant questions?

Interestingly, when Mark Zuckerberg of FaceBook fame decided to feed news direct, he chose respected organisations like the BBC, The Guardian, New York Times etc.

There must be original compelling stories told in a way audiences can trust. This involves meticulous preparing and patient listening.

Interviewers must ask intelligent questions, imagine and frame questions that help us understand the humanity of subjects.

Key To A Good Interview

  • Preparation
  • Unflinching rigour
  • Credibility

The latter two qualities must always be retained.

Sarah left the audience with two of her heroes:

 

Vasily Grossman

A fearless Russian writer and journalist who gave us a great example of honest eyewitness reporting. He made detailed notes as he was travelling with the Red Army in WW2, writing about the Nazi extermination camp Treblinka and even of the rape of German women by the victorious Russian army. 

His book about Stalin’s antisemitism and his disillusion with the regime was censored, ‘The KGB raided Grossman’s flat after he had completed Life and Fate, seizing manuscripts, notes and even the ribbon from the typewriter on which the text had been written.’ It had to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union after Grossman’s death.

Nellie Bly

A writer who admitted herself to a mental institution so she could write with authenticity. An American journalist she was widely known for her record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days, in emulation of Jules Verne’s fictional character Phileas Fogg.

A pioneer in her field, she is credited with launching a new kind of investigative journalism. She was also a novelist, industrialist, inventor, and charity worker.

I’ll add one of my heroes:

Andrew Olle (1947-1995)

Andrew Olle was one of Australia’s most admired broadcasters. He was respected by colleagues, opponents and the public for his fairness, quiet scepticism, calmness, gentle humour and lack of hubris. Starting out as a radio news cadet in Brisbane, Olle presented most of the ABC’s flagship current affairs programs including Four CornersThe 7.30 Report, Nationwide and A Big Country.

He also hosted election night coverage and the 2BL morning radio program in Sydney. His sudden death from a brain tumour at 47 caused an outpouring of public grief, including thousands of phone calls to the ABC, thousands more signing a condolence book and 6000 cards sent to the Olle family.

As a consummate radio and television presenter and interviewer he wanted light – a light shone on what the interviewee knew better than he. His ego was big enough to not care whether he “won” or not, he wanted his listeners and viewers to know more about the person and the subject they had just experienced. It was a unique softly, softly approach that won him so many hearts.

…Annette, his wife, recalls Olle saying he was “cursed with seeing both sides of any argument”. Again, of course, it was about getting balance and fairness exactly right as well. He was the last person to rush to judgement.

Peter Manning

Here is a link to the annual Andrew Olle Media Lecture given by John Doyle in 2005. It is well worth reading because again, it is an intelligent person sharing his observations and perceptions and being prescient about not only an industry but a world important to us all.

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

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

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

Empathy

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

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

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

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

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

Wikipedia entry

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

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

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

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

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

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Mt Suilven Scotland – Wikipedia

A Positive Ageing Story

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

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

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

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

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It is ‘Herstory’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy is too hurt and stunned to have sympathy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Generation Gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Triggered Memories of My Mountain Climbed

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

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approaching The Storr

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Icebreakers For Writers -Lessons That Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s in a name?
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s my effort –

Family_Resemblance.jpgWhat Made Me?
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introductions – Exercise One in Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AT HOME:

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

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

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

A Scottish Summer
Mairi Neil

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

Proust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Introductions – Exercise Two in Class

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

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

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

My effort:

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

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

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

picture lighthouse.jpg

Reflection and Discussion Enriches the Lesson

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

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

As always, encourage writing and rewriting at home…

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

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

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

OR

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

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

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

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

AJ cronin details.jpg

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

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

See how that exercise has triggered stories for me…

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

 

 

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

sign outside town hall.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memories triggered

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

My Facebook Post May 6th 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                        Jane Austen’s, Pride and Prejudice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane Austen Perennially Popular

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane Austen observed – everything.

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

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

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

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

Letter to James Stanier Clarke, 1 April 1816

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

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

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

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

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Discovering A Different Jane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

teenage jane austen history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                            Anne Elliot, Persuasion

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

Henry the 4th

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

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

Henry the 6th

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

Edward the 4th

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

Edward the 5th

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

Richard the 3d

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

Henry 7th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

she concludes with –

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

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

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

darcy's shirt and waistcoat.jpg

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

When History Is Fashionable

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

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

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

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

 

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

mature mrs darcy.jpg

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

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

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

those undergarments.jpg

What Influences Fashion?

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

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

Revolutions and wars are big influences.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

long woollen cloak:shawl.jpg

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

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

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

The bustle killed the shawl as a fashionable accessory.

dress with bustle

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

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

Lizzie Bennet’s Wedding Dress?

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

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

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

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

The Provenance of the Gown an interesting story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Yet Another Sidetrack… Huguenots

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proof refugees enrich society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A woman Jane Austen would have admired and loved!