‘The history of a Carrum family’ is a valuable asset added to local history.

author Jillian Bailey with me, November 2020

This is another post long overdue, and I apologise to friend and author, Jillian Bailey for not celebrating the publication of her wonderful family history before now, but I imagine I’m not the only blogger attempting catch-up after a horror of a year because of the global pandemic whirling a chaotic world close to home.

The above picture from November last year when we received from the printer, in Jillian’s words, ‘the labour of love’ that is The history of a Carrum family. The actual publication followed months of meetings held between lockdowns, copious emails, phone calls, text messages and usb drops in each other’s mailbox to finalise the contents, but as Jillian states in the Acknowledgements, the writing was in ‘progress over the past fifteen years…’

The book has pages of photographs and scanned documents. Many are family photos but there is a 1950s school photo from Carrum Primary as well as photographs of public events and locales. It is usually the inclusion of these photographs and historical descriptions of an area that moves a family history from being important to a select few to interesting for a wider audience. (The Facebook groups focusing on local areas have thousands of members and inevitably the posters who share old photos and memories receive the highest number of likes and responses.)

The process of which images to include became the subject of many discussions and hard decisions because as is the case with most family histories the cost of ‘the labour of love’ is borne by the researcher/writer!

Over the years and even in the months close to finalisation, family members gave feedback on the manuscript and some decided to submit or change a contribution. Writing a family history is not for the fainthearted or impatient.

Jillian initially began her journey into family history to honour her parents and record their legacy and keeping that as the focus helped decide what images and text to include and gave her definite parameters and a beginning and end. The book is a history of her family establishing a home in Melbourne’s bayside suburb of Carrum at the end of WW2, and the house built by her father features on the front cover; a photograph of her smiling parents, Jack and Doreen, brightens the back cover.

Jillian’s parents both lived into their nineties, Jack (95) and Doreen(98) and as their carer for many years Jillian took the opportunity to listen to their stories, ask questions, and record their memories with the aim of passing on the history to children, grandchildren, great grandchildren – a permanent legacy.

By taking the time to reflect and document the stories about the family’s history, Jack and Doreen’s life experiences, opportunities and challenges, the joys and sorrows, Jillian has captured her parents’ values and wisdom and their keen sense of humour. The book also provides an opportunity for the reader to learn what it was like growing up in Carrum of the 1950s at a time when the infrastructure and technology we know today, didn’t exist.

We may listen to stories told by parents and grandparents but until someone takes the time to record and write down these stories, the anecdotes and information remain fragmented memories, easily distorted and often accompanied by a bundle of photographs of people with no name or context.

Family histories are important historical documents, they can contain information and photographs more relevant to ordinary folk, who make up the majority, than stories of royalty and celebrities because the majority of people are not affluent, their fifteen minutes of fame if it happens is localised. It is ordinary working people who produce the families that make suburbs grow, who establish the clubs and special interest groups, and the need for parks, schools, libraries and bus routes!

At some time in our lives, most of us are curious about ancestors and where we are from, and the growing popularity of Ancestry.com and TV shows like Who Do You Think You Are plus people paying for DNA testing is significant.

Collating a family tree is important, but families are more than a list of birth and death dates. Stories add flesh and depth to an abstract list of names. The Family Tree in Jillian’s history prepared by a genealogist friend, begins with her grandparents. Jillian’s mother was an only child, but her father was one of six children, so the Bailey family tree has plenty of foliage!

There are interesting inclusions in the book that you don’t necessarily find in other family histories such as colourful Heraldic pics certifying the origins of the maternal grandparents’ name, Watson (meaning son of Walter and dating to thirteenth century) and paternal grandparents’ name, Bailey (or Bailiff – man of great importance, fourteenth century).

Plus closeups of Certificates of Sale of the Highland Titles of Lord and Lady of Glencoe and a small plot of land in a nature reserve, in the Parish of Lismore in Scotland. The titles bought for Doreen and Jack on their 70th Wedding Anniversary. This gift from the family and subsequent ‘knighting’ at the party a great example of the Bailey family sense of humour and fun. In Jillian’s words:

“The family always got together for special birthdays and anniversaries, we loved the thought of a get-together; any good excuse for a party. We had great family parties, Mum at the piano hitting the keys beautifully; our singing not so beautiful, but with gusto and enjoyment...

Mum and Dad’s 70th Wedding Anniversary was extra special. About ninety family and friends came from everywhere to celebrate with them. Joan, who was the flower girl for their wedding in April 1942, came with her husband Alan. It was lovely to see them chatting with Mum and Dad.” (page 86)

the page of Jack and Doreen’s wedding photos – a feast for those interested in fashion but when you think of rationing and mood, it is also a triumphant achievement of planning and joy in the middle of a war.

Jillian’s parents were founding members of the Carrum Entertainment Group in 1955 and the reminiscences about the concerts and plays performed are illustrated by newspaper clippings, scanned programs and photographs. Doreen had her own band that played at all the local Barn and Square Dances held at the Carrum Fire Brigade Hall when it was situated near the Patterson River in Station Street.

Similarly, Jillian’s father was the Captain-Coach of the Carrum Life Saving Club and helped organise the Royal Life-Saving carnivals popular in the era and Jillian writes a vivid description of participating in the 1952 carnival hosted by Carrum. The book is rich in detail about neighbours and the various families involved with the Baileys, and as is often the case when people live most of their life in a particular locality, the friendship circle remains.

The history of a Carrum family is an enjoyable easy read, well set out in six parts with accompanying photographs and scanned documents:

Part 1 – the story of the maternal and paternal grandparents arriving in Australia by ship from England.

Part 2 – Doreen and Jack’s memories of childhood, marriage and children, working life and move to Carrum.

Part 3 – details of grandparents and family friends, stories of cousins.

Part 4 – the story of Jillian and her siblings childhood at Carrum, adulthood, weddings and children.

Part 5 – children’s weddings, grandchildren, family celebrations: anniversaries and Christmas parties, memories and anecdotes

Part 6 – stories relating to the family history published in Mordialloc Writers’ anthologies 2007-2015.

The anthologies Jillian refers to are in the library: A Rich Inheritance, published 2007, Carnival Caper, 2011 and Kingston My City, 2015. (This last anthology is free to download as an e-book KingstonMyCity.epub. and Jillian’s story starts p.74)

I couldn’t attend the launch of The history of a Carrum Family which happened when lockdown 4 eased December 2020. Remaining border restrictions meant family members interstate watched the launch remotely.(Yeah for the Internet!)

I’d had a rough year health-wise and a recent diagnosis made crowds too risky. Fortunately, Jillian’s son recorded the event and one of her friends put together a lovely memory book about the successful launch.

Here are a couple of extracts putting the launch in context and explaining the start of Jillian’s writing journey:

In the first essay when Jillian began writing her family history she focused on the first decade – 1949-1959:

I cast my mind back to 1948 when my parents bought a block of land in Carrum for 50 pounds. Dad and a family friend, Jack Millane, a carpenter-joiner by trade, started to build our house at the end of 1949...

They were tough times and over the next ten years, shortages of labour and building materials meant many people built their own houses, or provided unskilled labour for friends to cut construction costs and delays. ‘Materials were hard to get,’ Dad said, ‘even the nails were like gold. You had to dig deep to find them.’

On hearing about the shortage, Eric ‘Sandy’ McDougall, the local chemist and well-known Carrum identity said, ‘I’ll get you some nails, Jack.’ Sandy supplied Dad, and many others, with nails he railed down from Sydney. These nails were made in Melbourne, but were rationed to other states according to need, by the Gold Nail Company and government regulations. Mr Mac (as a lot of people called him), set up a hardware corner in his chemist-grocery mixed business, providing an excellent service for the local community.

Dad worked all week, and at weekends he rode his pushbike from Chelsea to Carrum to help Jack build the house...” (page 114)

The recent upheavals because of the pandemic makes some of this information eerily familiar as does the poignant story of Laurel Bailey, Jillian’s Aunt, born in 1932. Six-year-old Laurel collapsed on stage at the Princess Theatre during a dance performance to become:

… one of the first Infantile Paralysis cases in Victoria. She spent the next two years in the Hampton Hospital (now known as Linacre Rehab Hospital) paralysed from the chest down inside an iron lung to help her breathe. She had contracted Polio from her cousin, Beryl who had no symptoms at all. Beryl went on to marry and give birth to twelve children.

Laurel was one of the fortunate ones under the care of Sister Kenny, whose healing methods became internationally famous for her wonderful work with Polio victims. Unfortunately, Australia lost Sister Kenny to overseas due to the lack of respect and belief in the work she did. She fought the government to get help for polio sufferers for years without success... ” (page 48)

Another snippet of history in Jillian’s book that resonates with today’s news about what you can and cannot do during lockdown is her mother buying a hair salon in Carrum in the late 1950s – the site now occupied by Aldi’s supermarket. Jillian worked there too:

“I started at Venus College of Hair and Beauty Culture in February 1958. It was a fifteen month course, covering everything in hair and beauty work. I really enjoyed my studies and was proud of my qualifications. I worked with Mum in her salon on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings during this time to get some practical knowledge and hands-on experience. Mum eventually sold the business about two years later when I was qualified and had a position in a wonderful salon.” (page 63)

The story of following in her mother’s footsteps to own hairdressing salons and all the accompanying experiences that go with a career where every day is filled with personalities and personal stories will hopefully be the topic of Jillian’s next book when she writes her memoirs!

Until then, after fourteen years of research and writing, she can enjoy the well-deserved praise and gratitude from family and friends for The history of a Carrum family.

We survived all that 2020 threw at us and I’m pleased I had a small part to play in Jillian sharing her story of the strength, resilience and remarkable lives of earlier generations.

If you want to read about others who have displayed Jillian’s determination to publish a slice of history click on the links below:

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

More than Irish Eyes Are Smiling

A fond farewell to a friend, writer, and fellow Celt – thanks for a treasure trove of lovely memories!

Perhaps you’ll be inspired to write your family’s story!

A fond farewell to a friend, writer, and fellow Celt – thanks for a treasure trove of lovely memories!

Me with Kay Watson (Ceinwen) December 2013

Four days ago, I received a call from an unfamiliar number. Celtic feyness or a sixth sense made me pick up, instead of my usual practice of letting the call go to Voicemail.

‘I’m Sylvie, a friend of Kay Watson’s,’ a voice said, ‘and I’m ringing to let you know Kay passed away yesterday morning.’

I’ve reached an age where news of illness and death more frequent than I’d like and in recent times coming too often! Kay was one of my oldest students; first attending writing class at 80 years of age and publishing her memoir at 89. She only left when a move to a distant nursing home in her mid 90s made travelling and attendance difficult. 

Sylvie informed me that Kay had celebrated her 100th birthday at the beginning of the year and was thrilled to receive the obligatory greetings from the Queen. This snapshot of a grinning Kay in February speaks volumes!

Kay’s 100th birthday card from Queen Elizabeth II

We live in Covid times. The death of a family member, friend, or acquaintance presents difficulties when lockdown dictates funeral rules and visits to homes, especially to those in the aged care sector. So this will be a digital trip down Memory Lane to celebrate and farewell the life of one of the wonderful students I’ve been fortunate to meet during my time as a writing tutor.

Kay was remarkable and touched my life in many ways. The desire to honour her legacy has motivated me to shake off a torpor that’s had me avoid blogs and blogging for several months.

Many of those who follow Up The Creek With a Pen are ex-students or members of writing groups and will have met Kay in class or at the regular Sunday readings held by Mordialloc Writers’ Group until I retired in 2017. When writing, Kay preferred to be called by her Welsh name of Ceinwen, a language she still spoke fluently. Ceinwen was one of the few Welsh speakers in Melbourne, who could also read and write in Welsh, skills she often used on behalf of St David’s Welsh Church when they wanted to welcome visiting Welsh celebrities like the Welsh Choir or celebrate St David’s Day, the Welsh National Day in March.

Ceinwen means lovely, blessed, and fair – well-chosen descriptions of the Kay Watson I knew!

Kay’s memoir published 2010

My association with Ceinwen, inextricably, linked with Mordialloc Neighbourhood House, where we met because of common interests in writing and social justice. Between first volunteering, then being employed as a creative writing tutor, plus running the Mordialloc Writers’ Group and Readings By The Bay, my association with MNH lasted 21 years. Ceinwen attended Monday morning writing class for 13 of those years, also the Sunday Readings and meetings of the Union of Australian Women Southern Branch, which I coordinated. Her memoir launched on the 15th anniversary of the writers’ group, epitomised what local community writing classes and groups encourage and celebrate.

The Monday class at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House, Ceinwen’s beginning as a writer!
Kay dressed in signature orange (to match her hair she always said!) reading one of her poems at Readings By The Bay. She was a skilful knitter and knitted this suit herself!

The Launch of Ceinwen’s Journey, 2010

Good Afternoon – my name is Mairi Neil and I coordinate the Mordialloc Writers Group. Before I begin…

I acknowledge the people and elders, past and present of the Boon Wurrung Clans and the Kulin Nation. I acknowledge and uphold their unique relationship to this land and surrounding sea, a relationship of over 40,000 years. The Mordialloc Writers’ Group believes reconciliation is about recognition and healing with Australia’s Indigenous people. Together, we are Australian, let us bridge cultures and create a just society. 

Croesoa Welsh welcome for those who have specifically come for the launch of Ceinwen’s Journey, Shining in Reflection, a memoir by local writer, Kay Watson. Kay attends my writing for pleasure class here on a Monday; is a fellow member of Mordialloc Writers’ Group, and the Union of Australian Women Southern Branch, but above all she is a friend, so I am honoured to be able to launch Ceinwen’s Journey, which is a super read.

Kay is here today with her son Clive and daughter-in-law Sheila. We are also honoured to have publisher Hassanah Briedis, and I’d like to acknowledge our local member Janice Munt and convey the apologies of Federal member Mark Dreyfus and Senator Mitch Fifield both in Canberra this weekend. Several regular members of our writers’ group who couldn’t attend send congratulations too. Just as well not everyone could attend because we have already run out of chairs!

Before I extol the virtues of Kay’s memoir, I’d like to remind you of the group’s record of achievement – seven anthologies that have enabled 55 local writers to be published – many for the first time. Anthology number eight to be released at the end of this year will ensure our stories, poems, memoir, and novel extracts continue to represent this community’s culture. Local anthologies are valuable historical documents. We are the keeper of your stories as we write our own.

A word or sentence, an object or photograph, a line of poetry, a colour or a memory, and many other triggers besides, inspire writers and the breadth of Kay’s writing provides examples of all of these starting points.

Kay Watson does not suffer from writer’s block! When she first attended writing class a decade ago I acknowledged her wonderful ability to tell stories, and to tell them well. She is blessed with an amazing memory and the stories she wrote in class (and still does) are rich in detail and prompt fabulous discussions, tears and laughter, plus wonderful history lessons when we share lived experiences!

Kay with Heather Yourn (dec 2019), another longterm member of Monday class who came to my classes until 91 yrs of age. Heather wrote insightful stories and poems too. Kay and Heather had a special bond. When Heather moved to Mt Eliza she’d pick up Kay and bringing her to class because Kay lived at Patterson Lakes .

What Kay can’t remember is compensated by her vivid imagination! (Although no made up stories in this memoir!)

Her words flow effortlessly, in class every story seems true and once the excitement of this launch is over, she could produce an anthology of her short stories and poetry. But judging by her look of horror perhaps not – it is stressful putting a book together…

Kay’s memorable contribution is a story of a life spanning 89 years, written with modesty and understatement, yet she lived through the hardships of the Great Depression, the hungry uncertain years of the Great Slump, and the rationing and devastation of the Second World War when she was separated from Arthur, the love of her life. Then came children, several sojourns to Europe and the trials and tribulations of family life in the United Kingdom and retirement in Australia. 

Kay triumphs over the adjustments of resettlement, not only from England to Australia at a time of life when many would be reluctant to move from their comfort zone, but an earlier move to England from Wales. This childhood upheaval perhaps the greater challenge because she had to forgo her beloved Welsh language for the scouse accent of Liverpool. (It could have been worse she may have relocated to Glasgow!) 

Mind you adapting to ‘Strine’ has not been without dramas – like many new migrants she turned up to gatherings here in Australia with ‘a plate’ because she was told to, never realising it was supposed to have food on it!

Kay begins her story in 1921, a time of oil lamps, and tin baths used once a week before being hung in the yard. A time when wash day did indeed take all day, and children amused themselves with homemade toys, and their imagination, while mothers lit boilers, hand-washed everything, and if lucky, had a mangle to wring out the clothes to be dried in the back garden on a line of rope between wooden poles. The art of washing clothes no mean feat in the miserable weather of the UK.

At home, Kay spoke Welsh, at school English, and often home was a house of women because her Merchant Navy father spent time away at sea. These are memories of a time when the pace of life seemed slower, a time when not everyone had a car, a time when you made your own entertainment. Definitive childhood experiences leave their mark but it is amazing what memories are triggered in writing class.

First Love by Kay Watson

Keith Taylor was 15 years old and sat in the desk in front of me at school He had acne and hair sticking up like a chimney sweep’s brush dipped in oil. Not very tall, he was always straightening his spectacles with a forefinger and constantly sniffing instead of giving his nose a good blow.

I fell madly in love with Keith.

He lived in the next street and we walked to school together. Considered ‘grammar school material’, he helped me with my homework. We went to the cinema on Saturdays, and I watched him shine at football at the local recreation grounds. He was always there for me, saying, ‘You make me so happy you’re my girlfriend,’ and ‘I love your dark shining eyes.’

I gave him a photograph of myself and he kept it in his desk at school. ‘Why do you keep it there?’ I asked

‘To look at you often,’ he said, ‘because I’ll get into trouble turning around in class to look at you.’

No wonder I overlooked that he didn’t have film star features!

Love permeates this book: love of God and church, love of family, love of community, love of travel and love of having a good time. As all of you who know Kay, laughter is never far from her lips.

It has been Kay’s Faith and a keen sense of humour that has helped her through the sad times – of which there have been a few – especially the tragic loss of her beloved daughter, Dawn when only 21 years of age, and the recent loss of her husband and soul mate, Arthur.

You don’t reach 89 without having the rough as well as the smooth and yet this is not a sad book, it is indeed a celebration of a life well-lived. 

Writing your life story is not for the faint-hearted. It takes courage. When we write we reveal ourselves, expose ourselves to public scrutiny. We revisit good and bad times and often learn things about ourselves – each sentence can be as much a surprise to self as it is to the reader. It may be cathartic or be a shock but it is a wonderful gift to be able to use our very flexible and beautiful language to connect with others. And it is magic when we get it right – as Kay has done.

Sounds and Smells of War by Kay Watson

The war.  Air-raid sirens screech, enemy aircraft drone overhead. Wham Wham! Anti-aircraft batteries and crump of exploding bombs. We heard these sounds and more sitting on cold slatted wood seats in dank, brick, air raid shelters surrounded by dampness and fear of death. Our five senses overloaded every night.

Glass splintered and smashed, dancing on the cobblestones as windows hit by shrapnel. The suction and compression from huge blasts, pushed us together. We grabbed each other, held tight for comfort because there were no doors on the shelter and we could see the angry red sky blackened at the edges.

City docks aflame. The acrid smell of exploding paint drums and melting rubber in the air billowing smoke and flames from the burning sugar factory, which formed a fiery sheet on the surface of the water. 4.00am. After nine hours, the all clear siren sounded. We emerged from the shelter to the scent of burning wood. Smelly black dust hung in the air. We faced our homes, many destroyed, front doors blown off, shattered windows, rubble strewn gardens. Bewilderment. We hugged our blankets and pillows, and small babies in smelly nappies long overdue for changing.

Our kitchen relatively unscathed meant I had a cold wash. How I enjoyed the aroma of Lifebuoy Soap, the luxury of feeling clean and refreshed. We gathered the broken crockery from the red tile floor. An intense smell of soot from the kitchen range permeated upstairs, even inside chests of drawers. The force of the blast had scattered clothes from cupboards. They smelt musty and wet from the fire brigade’s efforts to save the house. Mum stood motionless and stared at the mattress, pockmarked like cinders on a hot face, by the incendiary bombs. Friends invited us to stay until we found a place outside the city, wreathing our faces in smiles. We smelled their coffee. Even burnt toast, delicious in those days.

The bitter days now behind us but the way to the new is in the shadow of the old. I enjoy more pleasant smells, especially seasonal ones, each flower bringing its own smell to my garden. Also the sea and seaweed clinging to rocks, the salt tangy ocean, the red earth of the desert and most of all sounds of birds like a choir of chirping minstrels.

There are interesting photographs in this book too – examine them closely because they all hold stories.

Please enjoy this magnificent achievement, a memoir to treasure and join with me in congratulating and welcoming author Kay Watson.

That day was probably one of the highlights of Kay’s long life and made more memorable by the support she received from fellow students in the class. One of the students, Helen, arranged for her partner to make a magnificent (and delicious) cake, in the shape of a traditional Welsh hat and many people followed the Aussie tradition of bringing a plate (food included, of course).

Another longterm student of Monday classes was Amelia, in a similar age group as Kay, they shared a close friendship. Both lived in Parkdale and loved writing poetry about the environment, especially the sea. Sadly, Amelia predeceased Kay. I read some of Amelia’s poetry at her funeral.

Kay and Amelia Auckett

I can’t attend Kay’s funeral but will finish this blog with some of her lovely poems that featured in the annual class anthologies where she favoured writing about her memories of the UK countryside. There are a few photographs too, of Kay’s classmates, several who have now passed away. There is also a picture I treasure of Kay with my mother, who was born in April 1921. The pair met a few times at Mordialloc Writers’ events and got on well but sadly, Mum died in 2009, a few months after this picture was taken.

Kay with Mum (Anne McInnes)

It is not overstating, to say everyone loved Kay and her stories never disappointed. During WW2 she was in the WAAF’s Entertainment Unit blessed with a wonderful Welsh singing voice and the actors and entertainers she met in the concerts to entertain the troops filled a list of celebrity who’s who, but I loved her travelogues. She’d bring in pictures of her and husband Arthur’s holidays to Spain and France and write about fascinating adventures.

One travel story sticks in my mind because she had the class in stitches and there were no accompanying snaps. A group of friends had hired a yacht to sail the Mediterranean islands. When the weather turned nasty, they headed for a nearby isle to drop anchor. On going ashore they discovered it was a nudist colony and to use any of the facilities, they had to, in Kay’s word ‘conform’.

I miss teaching writing in community houses, miss the many students who enriched my life with their stories and imagination. I learnt so much and will always smile when remembering the friendship, laughter, entertaining and emotional stories, and the sharing of scrumptious morning tea that were all part of Writing for Pleasure on Monday mornings.

Childhood Home by Kay Watson

I long to see the old place again, just once on a winter’s day

frost makes white the lonely fields, and skies are silver grey.

I think of our cottage and winter walks down the lane

snowdrops nod their heads, their stems stiff like cane.

Those long dark nights, and cold short days,

the low angle of the sun casting shadow haze

adding form to the landscape and drifting snow,

patterned frozen puddles where summer sunflowers grow.

I shall return in summer and breathe the rustic air,

pause at the stream to rest and reflect on things there –

remember my childhood of long ago – and I’ll sing

of the joy and peace Mother Nature always brings.

Meadowland by Kay Watson

Warm sun thaws and meadows tenderly lie

beneath the paintbox of sunrise,

the bridle of earth and sky.

Cowslips join waves of ripening corn 

to float and dance, spellbound entranced

warming my heart like a cloth of gold.

Ever changing breeze sighs through my hair

like a joyless eye, 

it is eventide when sun sinks in the west 

and drowsy butterfly folds his wings, 

birds fly to their nests no more to sing.

Flower petals close, the daisy asleep 

is that primrose buried in slumber deep?

Thoughts scatter in fancy’s flight

sweet dreams close eyelids, till dawning light.

The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude.

Thornton Wilder

Thank you Kay (Ceinwen) Watson for sharing your journey!

Kay signing a copy of her book for Alex at Readings by the Bay, 2010

Fashion Meets Fiction To Help Writers With Authenticity

In January 2013, I attended a wonderful exhibition at the Burrinja Cultural Centre in Upwey, presented by Eastern Regional Libraries Corporation and the Centre, to celebrate the National Year of Reading.

The exhibtion promised ‘travels through time and fiction of the periods, drawing together the threads of character, period, fashion and finery.’

The costumes on display accompanied by a novel of the period. I recognised many of the books, either read in school or turned into television or cinema classics. The costumes spanned 170 years of fashion history and were overwhelmingly for females. Women’s clothing underwent many radical changes of style, and until recently, despite ‘clothes maketh the man‘, the mention of fashion usually conjures images of predominantly female models on catwalks and shining in events like the Melbourne Cup’s Fashion on the Field.

I’m writing this blog as the postmortem on the recent United States Presidential Inauguration Ceremony is being mulled over with comments on the clothes of the participants – Bernie Sanders’ mittens, leading ladies purple outfits, Lady Gaga’s stunning appearance – and of course everyone wearing face masks and sending a powerful message about COVID19 and the mutant viruses.

Including costumery for characters important for writers and can improve a story on many levels, with detail valuable, whether you write fact or fiction.

The exhibition I attended, provided a mine of information for writing historical fiction. There were rare items such as a delicate crinoline dress dated 1860, bustle dresses from the late 19th century, suits from the Second World War era, 1950s ball gowns and 20th-century cocktail dresses and pant suits.

Accessories featured too: hats, gloves, shoes and handbags, jewellery … a feast of fashion for designers and researchers; especially wonderful for writers looking for colourful authenticity.

Most characters for a short story or novel require relevant research, and if you are delving into a particular period of history, the knowledge and inclusion of fashion, social mores, and specific idioms or jargon help the reader enter the world you have created.

If you make a mistake, believe me, there will be a critic somewhere who will notice!

Your blunder may not be as obvious as Brad Pitt wearing his 20th Century wristwatch in a fight scene in the 2004 Hollywood version of ancient Greece’s Troy, but may encourage the reader to question other details in your story.

I speak from experience.

A friend picked up a mistake in a Facebook post I made when I mentioned the first bicycle I owned in Australia bought secondhand at a high school fete in 1963. I said it was 50 cents when I should have said 5 shillings because Australia didn’t introduce decimal currency until 1966.

Details matter. When it comes to fashion it might alter the storyline, the timeline you decide to use and the location – even the need for minor characters. Consider the time it took a female to dress when layers fashionable: underwear (vest, knickers, corset, bloomers, stockings, underskirt, bustle and hoop), dress/skirt and outerwear of shawl/cape/coat/jacket, hat, gloves, shoes.

Depending on their wealth and station in life, they may have a dresser or maid, butler, hairdresser, even someone to apply make-up and choose jewellery. Or they may be so poor, they have one outfit, whatever the season that is altered and repaired!

When I spent a Christmas period in Toronto Canada that coincided with their worst winter blizzards in 50 years, I learnt to allow 10-15 minutes to take off or put on, the boots, coats, woollen hats and scarves. Each time you moved from outside to indoors visiting or shopping became a repetitive exercise.

Museums, art galleries and libraries often have permanent displays, plus special exhibitions, which provide a wealth of visual reminders about life in other eras and may contain hidden gems of information or give ideas useful for your writing. Events are sometimes free or available at a minimum cost.

Display at NGV focusing on French fashion and inspirations for artists

The Darnell Collection

I’ve blogged about the Jane Austen era a couple of times before and also an exhibition on the women in Dickens‘ novels. Fabulous exhibits to mine for information.

The Fashion Meets Fiction exhibition in 2012- 13 was created from a collection that grew from one woman’s passion for vintage clothes and accessories. Doris Darnell, a Quaker from Pennsylvania collected for over 70 years. The social history behind the items donated and gifted from around the world was ‘as important as the items themselves and preserving them and their stories for future generations became an important part of her passion.’

Letters, photographs and stories accompanied the gifts linking them to their original owners or donors, often detailing the occasion/s they were worn. The Australian goddaughter of Doris, inherited the collection in 2004. Charlotte Smith has grown the collection to 7,500 pieces, representing 23 different countries, to become the largest private international vintage clothing couture in Australasia.

Often the focus is on women’s clothing – and usually the glamorous items – however, clothing for men and children are represented. There are wedding dresses and sportswear, plus many reference library books, journals and exhibition catalogues.

The Darnell Collection provides fashion history education and is a design resource. Charlotte, the current custodian promotes the collection’s mission ‘to preserve, develop and enhance the collection’s ability to educate, interpret and inspire existing and new audiences for the better understanding and appreciation of the art of fashion.’

At the Burrinja Cultural Centre, the focus was on the style of memorable characters from popular novels: Scarlett O’Hara, Holly Golightly, Phryne Fisher, Carrie Bradshaw, Sarah Woodruff and others. The backstory of the clothes and accessories explained too.

This ball gown of rayon, cotton thread and sequins, by Margeaux Couture is c1950s America. The ornate handbag of silk, velvet, gold and glass beads from Hong Kong, same era. They were chosen to represent the world of David Dodge’s novel, To Catch A Thief, where the main character, a daring cat burglar thieves from hotels and villas on the French Riviera. I remember watching the film on black and white television. I can imagine Grace Kelly in this stunning red gown.

Since the 1950s, formal attire has evolved from private events to public ones – from debutante balls and gala evenings in sumptuous venues to red carpet entrances. As written in Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950, “Carefully chosen for special occasions, a ballgown should not only flatter the wearer and demonstrate her sense of style but also illustrate an understanding of the event to which it is worn.”

Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence, is set in the 1870s. The two-piece dress chosen for the exhibition is American c1880 of silk faille, silk velvet and gilt metal to suit her upper-class characters.

Silk faille a popular fabric during the Victorian era with its strongly defined, ribbed texture and dramatic draping qualities. It is weighty and has to be cut carefully to ensure the ribbing of the two connecting pieces match to avoid uneven patterns. The material came back into vogue with Christian Dior’s New Look and is popular today with wedding dress designers.

Whenever I see these voluminous dresses with complicated layers, frills and beading, I think of the seamstresses because even with the invention of machines much of the sewing would be by hand.

The first functional sewing machine was invented by the French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier, in 1830. Thimonnier’s machine used only one thread and a hooked needle that made the same chain stitch used with embroidery. The inventor was almost killed by an enraged group of French tailors who burnt down his garment factory because they feared unemployment as a result of his sewing machine invention. https://www.thoughtco.com/stitches-the-history-of-sewing-machines

My Aunt Chrissie, a tailoress, served her apprenticeship prior to WW2, and opened her own sewing school when she emigrated to Melbourne from Scotland in the 1950s. My older sister Cate, inherited her talent but my sewing skills are average.

However, sewing and fashion touches everyone’s life in some way. My generation experienced compulsory needlework classes at school, homemade clothes the norm for many working class people. Hundreds of stories and characters can be created around the subject.

The dress chosen for Daisy Miller, in Henry James’ novel Daisy Miller also c1880s, and made by Mrs C Tracey of New York. This silk faille Bustle Dress with silk taffeta lining and lace, has metallic thread, metal sequins and glass beads.

Bustles were semi-rigid structures of wire half circles held in place by cotton tape and secured around the women’s waist, sitting over her bottom thus creating an unnatural protrusion in silhouette. Less cumbersome than the crinoline, it still required a restrictive corset to achieve the tiny waist fashionable in the Victorian and early Edwardian eras.

This desire for a tiny waist had shocking consequences. A family story about my paternal Grandmother who married in 1900 mentions how she fainted twice donning her wedding dress because the corset strings had to be pulled tight to ensure the obligatory 18 inch waist!

The crinoline dress chosen for Eleanor Bold in Anthony Trollope’s, Barchester Towers, published in 1857 is from that era and also American. It is silk taffeta with silk thread and wooden buttons and the shape has been altered from the enormous dome usually found in crinolines to early bustle shape.

The mannequins used to display many of the Collection’s Victorian dresses are the equivalent to the average modern 12 year old! Most Victorian women were tiny, including Queen Victoria who was only 150cm tall. (That’s under five feet for those still dealing in feet and inches!) Mum was 150cm and was resigned to taking hems up on bought skirts and dresses.

The Day dress, c1860 America of roller printed cotton with natural dyes, chosen for Lucinda Leplastrier in Peter Carey’s novel of colonial Australia, Oscar & Lucinda. It has a wire hoop petticoat to create a domed or bell shape. An ungainly and dangerous style blamed for women swaying too close to an open fire and being trapped in smouldering garments. Hoop petticoats provided fodder for cartoonists to lampoon female social gatherings depicting the cumbersome dresses in small Victorian parlours.

I can vouch for the accuracy of the difficulty negotiating movement with a hoop in the hem of your dress. For my 60th birthday, I held a party inviting friends to dress as their favourite literary character. I went as Jo March from Little Women, after she sold her hair! A plastic hula hoop bought from a Two Dollar Shop provided the shape.

A friend helped me make this dress for my 60th Birthday bash

If your fictional heroine is wearing one of these dresses don’t add to her clumsy misery by having her drink a lot of tea or other beverages requiring visits to the bathroom!

Another Bustle Dress c1880s America was chosen for The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles. It is one of the most individual Victorian dresses in the Collection; an apt choice for Sarah Woodruff. Wool with Mother of Pearl buttons it has unusual paisley panels, which suggests the dress was made by a small town dressmaker or to be worn by the maker because apart from the bustle, it does not follow other Victorian fashion trends.

I remember reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman for HSC English Lit in 1970 and can imagine Sarah wearing this dress. Even with a dark cloak and hood, she looked striking and attracted attention ensuring her walks along the cliff top and by the sea did not go unnoticed.

Two of the displays triggered more memories of Mum. A wool suit with silk crepe lining by Paul Horla for Fritzels, Milwaukee c the early 1940s is a wonderful example of fashion during World War Two. It was chosen to represent Dominique Francon, a character in Ayn Rand’s, The Fountainhead, first published 1943. It reminded me of Mum’s wedding suit but of course, in 1948, Scotland still had rationing and her suit was not as upmarket as pure wool and silk crepe. However, the style is similar.

When material was rationed, wool fabric allocated to uniforms and war related outfits was still difficult to obtain and dressmakers and tailors ‘took extraordinary steps’ to ensure no scrap of fabric wasted. Skirts became pencil shaped, requiring minimum metres and jackets tailored for a snug fit.

The clever details of this suit, which makes it look truly decadent in a time of austerity, are the collar, pockets and cuffs are fake… actually layers of leftover fabric cut and sewn individually… the ‘pockets’ are scraps of fabric stitched to the bodice and not usable.”

My Mother loved reading and had a penchant for genre novels – mysteries and romances her favourites. She introduced me to Agatha Christie and when I lived with a friend, in a Canberra flat while attending ANU, I discovered Margaret loved Agatha Christie too and worked my way through her bookshelf.

No surprises that Mum liked to read Maigret novels, Georges Simenon’s French detective and Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series, like The Case of The Lonely Heiress. Perry Mason being a Californian lawyer and both of these characters subjects for popular television series and films. I can remember watching them in the 1960s and 70s and Maigret has been revived recently with new adaptations.

Perry Mason had a devoted secretary, Della Street, who helped him solve cases and the Ball Gown with Shawl by Lucy Sector captures the evening glamour c1950s. This outfit of silk brocade and silk satin was made in Melbourne. The Governor’s secretary wore the gown when she attended a ball at Government House, Sydney 1954.

Lucy Sector’s fashion career began in Melbourne in 1930s and her respected label became fashionable and exclusive with dresses sold throughout Australia, including her own shop in Northbridge WA. The black handbag of glass beads and silk brocade lining was from France c1950s.

The Swinging Sixties & Groovy Seventies

The 60s and 70s heralded big changes in acceptable attire for women with dresses becoming shorter and more revealing and pantsuits designed for afternoon and evening wear. Candice Bushnell’s, Sex and the City, a popular bestseller in 1997 as a collection of essays on the lifestyles of her social circle. Later a movie was made and television series. The silk faille cocktail dress by Christian Dior chosen for the character Carrie Bradshaw has glass beads, sequins and silk lining c late 1990s.

In 1997, John Galliano replaced Gianfranco Ferre as Dior’s head designer. He combined his love of theatrics with inspiration from the Dior archives and the fitted, elegant and feminine dress is reminiscent of the 1950s.

The leather shoes are more recent c2009 by Manolo Blahnik and come with a fascinating backstory, inspired by a similar pair of shoes Blahnik produced for designer Ossie Clark in the 1970s. Blahnik was producing men’s shoes in his shop in Chelsea, London when Clark asked him to create shoes for his next couture collection. Making women’s shoes filled a creative void for Blahnik and his outrageous and flamboyant designs became the fashion must-have. Bushnell’s novel republished in 2008 and the 2009 television series of Sex and the City gave Blahnik shoes cult status.

In Octopussy, Ian Fleming’s final James Bond book, a collection of short stories and published posthumously in 1966, the main character is Octavia Charlotte Smyther (aka Octopussy). Attractive, smart and athletic women a feature of Bond novels and movies so the pant suit by La Gaye Parisienne, Sydney of lurex and lame fabric perfect. A pant suit fits the 1960s setting but vamped to look trendier and sexier than the ordinary.

London 1956, saw the first couture collections using metallic yarn. By the 1960s, silver and gold lame fabrics (as well as pastel colours) replaced black as the favoured colour for the popular cocktail scene.

Love Story by Erich Segal, set in the 1970s and first published in the USA 1972 to popular acclaim, capturing the mood of the era of breaking down barriers and shifting boundaries. One of the main characters Jenny Cavilleri is studying music in Massachusetts and is matched to a machine-made lace and silk pant suit by Ann Pakradooni, a well-known dressmaker in Philadelphia in the 1960s and 70s.

Two years ago, this suit was part of a small display at the Philadelphia Art Institute. An 80 year old visitor asked if she could take a closer look at the inside of the jacket. Upon inspection of the stitching of the hooks and eyes, she realised she had made the suit when she worked for Mme Pakradooni in the early 1970s. She recognised her stitch work and explained each seamstress had a unique signature stitch, their secret signature for every garment they made.

The straw Hat with cotton flowers and satin ribbon is Australian c1970s, and the leather Handbag, French by Pierre Cardin c1970s.

Agatha Christie’s, Death On The Nile, a Poirot Story was first published in 1937 and set in that era. The silk organdie Day Dress c1930s an example of the softer more feminine look to replace the boyish 1920s. Soft, transparent fabrics like silk organdie were popular with colourful and complicated designs printed on silk, rayon and crinkle crepe. Daywear became less decorative and more practical, reflecting women’s busier roles in society. The brown straw Hat has cotton and plastic flowers on velvet ribbon.

The Great Gatsby, by S Scott Fitzgerald is out of copyright this year so prepare for a slew of adaptations and interpretations. It was first published in 1925 and featured the memorable Daisy Buchanan and the Roaring 20s United States. The blue silk chiffon and satin Dance Dress has paste diamantes and the silk shawl c1920 from China is stitched with silk thread.

The Evening Bag by Whiting & Davis is c1920 America and is woven metal mesh with hand screened-printed pattern and gilt metal frame. Whiting & Davis was one of the biggest and best known mesh handbag manufacturers and still manufacture today. Screen printing allowed for a myriad of patterns and colours.

The shoes by YuYee c1920s China with the maker’s stamp reading ’embroider shoes made in China’ and comprise of cotton, silk thread and leather soles. China’s export industry ensured wealthy expats could purchase garments and accessories with a ‘westernized’ Chinese look. in the 1920s, popular fashion included the wallpaper effect of Japanese decoration and rich embroidered patterns of flowers from China.

Georgy Girl, by Margaret Forster embraced the Swinging Sixties, and is another popular novel that made it to the big screen. It also inspired The Seekers hit song Georgy Girl used for the movie. The Cocktail Dress by Guy Meliet is silk faille from Caracas, South America, and the hat is synthetic mesh with faux pearls, c1990s, England. Although made in the 1990s the hat is 60s inspired and pairs well with the straight A-shape of the dress and suits the personality of the novel’s swinging Meredith.

Guy Meliet trained in Paris before moving to Caracas. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, many designers and milliners trained in Paris alongside a well-known couturier before launching their their own salons in countries demanding expensive, French inspired clothes. Meliet is credited with dressing some of the most beautiful socialites in Venezuela, including Chesley Larson, the owner of this dress. A world that was anathema to Forster, a lifelong feminist and socialist.

Although published in 1963, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John Le Carre, characterises the late 50s and early 60s, known as the Cold War era when spies and double agents were in the news. The chosen dress is Italian c1960, woollen and by Spinelli.

Elena and Sante Spinelli immigrated to Australia from Italy in 1958. In 1960 their luxury knitwear label, Spinelli began in Adelaide, South Australia. Their international influences and flair spiced Australian fashion, evidenced by this ‘mod’ 1960s dress. Combining fine Australian merino wool and the skill of Italian craftsmanship produced a unique Australian fashion statement. The wool Hat by Mr M c1960s America and the Australian crocodile Handbag with leather lining finishes the elegant outfit.

What would any fashion or life story be without the ubiquitous wedding dress. Nicholas Sparks 2003 novel The Wedding, focuses on a couple celebrating 30 years of marriage and while planning their daughter’s wedding, the husband is ‘re-courting’ his wife. It is set in the 70s and the Wedding Dress by the House of Henry Josef, Sydney, is machine-made lace, silk satin, net and polyester.

There were many other novels and outfits to satisfy a variety of historical periods and a writer’s curiosity. I’m sure many exhibitions are available online, especially with the disruption of 2020 and the continued adjustments to life trying to be Covid-normal.

Explore, research, read – then write!

To end with a smile (and we certainly need more of them!) here is a poem I wrote last Christmas for one of my daughters who loves cosplay and comes up with wonderful ideas for costumes, which we make on a low budget.

In 2021, the Earth can’t risk the Groundhog Day Effect

sunrise nearing Shetland

Although it is difficult to make headlines or initiate a public discussion about anything other than the global pandemic or Trump and his supporters’ refusal to accept the results of the USA Election, Greta Thunberg who just turned 18, has reminded us global warming is still happening with devastating consequences.

For those who have never seen the movie Groundhog Day, perhaps take a few minutes to Google,  or accept the explanation below…

Groundhog Day Effect

Based on the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. It is the idea that every action that one makes; the rewards and consequences of those actions are not followed through the next day. If someone were to make a big choice, commit a crime, offend someone, make a mistake, or meet someone throughout a period of a regular 24 hour day, those rewards and consequences for all of those actions are not carried through the next day. It is all forgotten. In other words, it’s like yesterday never happened. Therefore this pattern can keep on repeating for an unknown amount of time.

 I’ve known about the dangers of the Greenhouse effect, global warming, climate change – call it what you will – all my adult life and yet each year the public discussion seems to be the same. I’m with Greta – why aren’t we woke yet?! 

A Member of the Victorian Parliament Warned about Climate Change in 1990!

Here is an extract from the Gazette the Victorian MP Jean McLean used to deliver to her constituents.

Before social media, many members of parliament made an effort to keep the electors informed via regular newsletters. Jean McLean was especially interested in the environment and social justice issues – climate change most certainly an environmental AND social justice concern.

(It was time-consuming to get the message out with the tools of typing, Gestetner printing or photocopying, hand stapling and enveloping, even before relying on Aussie Post or volunteers like me to distribute, but I am so glad Jean did! )

extract from Jean McLean MP's Gazette.jpg

Currently, we are in the midst of a pandemic with a coronavirus never seen before and mutating at an alarming rate.  My recent diagnosis of melanoma (and I know many others in my circle of friends who have had skin cancers) proves the scientists’ predictions tragically spot on!

Pollute And  Perish – a Catchcry of the 70s

selection of protest badges
selection of badges from the 70s onwards – anti-nuclear, pro-solar, warning of radiating our food

Environmentalists and conservationists have been warning about global warming since April 22, 1970, when the first Earth Day was held in the USA and scientists coined the term Greenhouse Effect. They forecast the Earth’s future in doubt because air pollution was warming the planet – pollution primarily caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

In the 80s the anti-uranium movement gained momentum against those seeking nuclear power because of the Chernobyl disaster, a place still contaminated 35 years later. It wasn’t the first but is perhaps the worst nuclear power station disaster,  yet some people still suggest nuclear power as an alternative energy source.

Since the 70s, environmental activists usually lumped in with  ‘the Left’,  disbelieved and vilified, shrugged off with contempt as ‘greenies’ and ‘tree huggers’.  Although social media favours ‘snowflakes’ and ‘leftards’ and other generic insults to cover numerous issues, not just the perceived ‘hoax‘ of climate change!

Not surprisingly, many who disbelieve climate change also favour the conspiracies around COVID19, although ironically there are some who believe the science of climate change but not the science of epidemiology (and vice versa)!

Climate messengers have expanded, from both sides of the political divide and even in the corporate sector. They admit climate change is real and we are experiencing dire human and economic consequences by ignoring the science. 

Natural disasters on the rise mean the tragedy of global warming can’t be ignored, but we shouldn’t forget many of our current political and corporate leaders have always KNOWN!

They’ve had:

  • Access, to scientific reports and data like the World Oceanographic Commission and World Meteorological Organisation, mentioned above,
  • plus a variety of other national and international research bodies. 

acrostic poem about earth day

Ignorance and lack of action a choice we really can’t afford now:

This time last year I was at home watching news of bushfires ravaging Victoria and NSW and making pouches for rescued wildlife.

Friends in the USA and Canada have shared the devastation of the 2020 fires in California that compounded the grief of coronavirus suffering.

Since the global pandemic struck, I have increased email correspondence to friends overseas or locals keeping social distance because of lockdown. Often the discussion is about the future and we recognise the existential threat of global warming. It may be off the front pages of newspapers but not forgotten by the people living with the memory of last summer’s fires in both hemispheres.

majestic tree copy.png.

Shirly is 88, and a dear friend in England who is married to a cousin of my husband’s, and like many living in the UK, she copes with what she describes as a world ‘in a mess… it’s as if Margaret Atwood wrote the year we’re living.  Dystopian.

On January 4th she wrote
 
Yesterday, quite accidentally, I turned the news channel on and your PM was extolling the joys of coal and the fact that this was Australia, not some little country dependant on Europe or America.
 
We can do what we like. We have coal and we’ll use coal.
 
He said it as though he was giving the people an enormously good piece of news. As though global warming had nothing to do with your country.   I couldn’t believe my ears.
 
But there are so many non- believers, we shouldn’t be surprised…

How right she is and the many reports about climate change updated because of another year’s data prompted others in Australia to remind the population of  PM Morrison’s pathetic position:

fb_img_1609967712420-1

I published a version of this poem in 2019 appealing to the then PM, Malcolm Turnbull. The appeal is still the same, although the PM, date, and increasingly worrying data have changed, plus we have the new ill-informed Deputy Prime Minister in the mix.

Easy actions many of us can take is to care and plant more trees, become a dendrophile. Also reduce, reuse and recycle,  and start conversations with friends and neighbours to lobby local councillors and politicians about the importance of renewable energy and government policies that help create a sustainable environment.

ancient tree.png

Most importantly, we can use our voice and our vote. This year there will be a Federal election in Australia, we must make sure climate change is addressed.

 

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

Impermanence, Inevitability and Dying with Dignity.

footsteps in sand

I haven’t posted since July 2020, but it is a new year and notwithstanding the recent outbreak of COVID19 in my local area, I am hoping 2021 will be better.

This is actually a reworking of a post from several years ago and if you read to the end, my choice of updating and reposting should make sense. (It’s not just laziness although it is an effort to overcome a lack of enthusiasm and feeling of irrelevance!)

The last six months have been the definition of hell for so many people despite some (including me) attempting to find the glass half full.

I’ve read of achievements, new hobbies, friendships, educational courses, diets and exercise regimes, technology,  books, films, music, imaginative recipes and discovery of  local environmental gems… there were also plenty of negative impacts from panic and fear, lockdowns, isolation, shortage of goods and services, lost jobs and homes, broken relationships and health issues.

The Virus not the Only Health Crisis

For me, health issues loomed large – my last post ended with the news of a stage 4 invasive melanoma diagnosed.  This shock of a recurrence of skin cancer (I had basil cell carcinomas removed when 30 years old) added to the news of breast cancer returning in December 2019, albeit a different and rarer, breast cancer.

A relieved thought (or unvoiced fear) was how lucky can one person be!

It wasn’t the immediate end of the world but I would be lying if I said thoughts of death didn’t loom large. I checked finances and discussed plans with my daughters for  ‘no funeral, just a big party’;  ensured my will, plus medical and financial power of attorney up-to-date.

In the last decade, many health scares, so déjà vu for the Neil household at this regular event!

yearly mammogram

However, the discovery of a brain tumour and the fear it was metastatic cancer shocked the GP who has cared for me for over 25 years. We both fought back tears, our trembling lips hidden by masks, social distancing forgotten as she squeezed my arm in sympathy and murmured about unfairness and not to lose hope because it could be a meningioma.

I’m 67 years old, ironically, the same age as my husband when he died in 2002, (John was 18 years older than me). Whether it is the Highland genes or just my Mother’s Irish superstition, this coincidence played on my mind and also worried my daughters.

Survival rates for cancer vary from person to person but the milestones of 5 and 10 years are always at the back of a patient’s mind when diagnosed. The longer you can go without a recurrence is something to celebrate.

However, survival rates for a tumour in the brain, poor and if an operation required the risk of stroke high.

I was disappointed when breast cancer returned after 9 years but my breast cancer surgeon inspires confidence and he acted quickly and decisively and this time it was a lumpectomy rather than mastectomy.

I don’t put off mammagrams no matter how uncomfortable they are and I follow his advice, even if data suggests most breast cancer is not picked up by mammagrams.

Plus, the shock of another breast cancer diagnosis soon eclipsed by COVID19 anxiety and declaration of the global pandemic.

The recovery from the melanoma and skin graft during severe lockdown, and in the middle of winter, took a little longer with travel permissions to worry about and more stringent rules for clinicians and patients. These restrictions lasted well into the next health surprise.

By the time I went through all the tests and consultations for the brain tumour, it took a lot of energy to even pretend to be positive about the future.  I thought back to the deaths of family and friends I’d witnessed or been involved with in the last stages of their life – hence revisiting this post about my friend Margaret.

Will I be calm and accepting? Do I want to prolong the inevitable? What are my priorities and is there any point in a bucket list?

I almost forgot to breathe when the neurologist decided it was a meningioma and not metastatic cancer. In the words of my breast surgeon on my annual visit in December, ‘You dodged another bullet, Mairi!’

How long I can keep dodging is a mystery but I’ve decided to turn the page on 2020 and try ‘business as usual’ along with my mantra ‘this too will pass’.

Digital Distraction

I spent July to December posting photographs and haiku on Instagram after joining at the suggestion of a dear friend in Japan who posts about Bonsai.

Naoko was a writing student of mine at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House, when she lived in Australia. She said I was an inspiration to her during a difficult time in her life and even wrote a poem about writing class which I published.

We have stayed connected and she returned any perceived favour by inspiring me to learn a new digital platform (with daughter Mary Jane’s help), indulge my love of photography and the environment, and write haiku, a favourite poetry form!

Naoko’s Instagram is #bonsai_sana and mine is #mairineil

Walking the dog each day around Mordialloc, I focused on everyday sights, let my imagination and thoughts wander and in the evening, inspired and guided by the demands of the form, I wrote haiku.

The anxiety, fear and dark thoughts about health and death receded as once again my passion for writing became therapeutic and a distraction. It gave me a focus and a project.

beautiful sunset creek

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Steve Jobs

pathways

And for many, death comes too soon…

Farewell To A Friend

The telephone call came out of left field. Tragic news to wreck quality time with a dear friend, yet it  is also a dear friend on the other end of the mobile.  My eyes sting with welling tears, but remain focussed out of the window of the Malt cafe in Beaumaris.

I watch two young mums chat animatedly on the footpath. Relaxed and smiling they are probably enjoying the freedom of the first day of the school year; the little darlings who kept them busy all the summer holidays tucked into classrooms. Another couple on an outside table feed their Golden Retriever tidbits from their plates.

I’m surrounded by chatter; the cafe almost filled to capacity. The aroma of  fresh muffins, fruit toast, and homemade jam mingles with my skinny latte and Lesley’s extra strong cappuccino. However, normality dissipates as I absorb the details of the call.  Body trembling, I feel as if I’ve been punched in the stomach and as usual Tamoxifen blesses me with a hot flush as anxiety peaks and emotions rage.

The day takes its first lurch into the surreal.

I’m on my way to celebrate a friend’s retirement from decades of teaching. She’s treating several friends to lunch at Sierra Tango, Cheltenham instead of us paying and hosting the celebration for her! The generosity of the invitation indicative of her warm, supportive personality and the venue a tribute to her knowledge of gastronomy, appreciation of fine foods and wine, and a commitment to support local businesses.

Determined not to spoil Lisa’s day, I seal my tragic news into an emotional compartment to be dealt with later…

I remember a poster I had on my wall at Burgmann College in 1971, when I lived on campus at ANU; my first year away from home. A poster long since eaten by silver fish when it was consigned to the garden shed, but here’s graphics with the same message – a sightly more colourful way of describing “left field”:

il_570xN.594810779_2dtb

The telephone call from Canberra, from a friend from those university days. She can’t keep shock and horror from her shaky voice.  A mutual friend, someone I shared a flat with in the 70s, is dying. She  was the first non-family member I lived, worked, and studied with – we even shared the double bed that came with the one-bedroom apartment – and thought nothing of it!  She’s now on borrowed time.

How could this be?

A voice laced with tears explains that a late discovery of inoperable breast cancer, treated with letrozole, has metastasised to the groin and brain stem. The condition kept secret for two years, while Margaret spent time travelling overseas and going through her bucket list. Now, in palliative care, her lifespan numbered in weeks rather than months – or days, if she experiences a seizure or rapid deterioration of the brain.

A  picture of all of us at the Harmonie German Club in Canberra in 1973, was shared in a recent post.  Tall slim Margaret centre stage.

Mum's_Picture_of_Margaret_&_Jane

She can’t be dying – and not of breast cancer. This news, too confronting and scary. I think back to the apartment we shared, and shiver. That old house divided into three and this news means all of the women living there, including me, have breast cancer: one double mastectomy, two single mastectomies and now Margaret with metastatic breast cancer! Bad luck? Coincidence? A cancer cluster?

A problem for another day…

Bad News Travels Fast

During Lisa’s celebration lunch I receive another phone call with news that a European friend who had stayed with me early January had to have an emergency eye operation in Sydney because of a detached retina. There’s a danger she’ll lose her sight.

This super fit friend, a world-renowned marathon swimmer, came ninth in the Pier to Pub swim at Lorne this year. She’s supposed to be leaving Sydney for her home in Italy with a stop in one of Thailand’s resorts, but is now delayed in Australia until doctors allow her to fly.

The day has taken its second lurch into the surreal.

On my way home, I have the Serenity Prayer playing in my head as I try to put the sad news into perspective and decide on a course of action.

images

The next day I’m in Canberra and over four days catch up with many old friends from university, make some new ones, and spend hours with Margaret as she adjusts to the effects of radiotherapy and the news of having limited time.

She copes well with the steady stream of people who want to help in some way, as well as saying goodbye. The adage ‘bad news travels fast‘ proving true.

The busyness reminds me of husband, John’s last days – the irony of our busy vibrant house,  constant comings and goings, laughter and noise, feasts, and endless cups of tea and coffee surrounding someone dying.

We share meals with Margaret, laughs and stories. I spot photographs in an album – and snap copies with my camera.

 ‘Those indeed were the days my friend,’ I say,  ‘we had a lot of fun!’

Margaret agrees. I listen as she describes the highlights of her overseas trips and of her intention to travel again.

Deep down we both know another trip will never happen.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Before I leave, I water the plants and pick flowers to brighten inside.   Margaret manages to negotiate back steps with some help and watches me water the garden, pointing out several special plants that came from other people’s gardens, or were received as gifts.

‘This can’t be happening,’ she whispers and I know she isn’t talking about my watering efforts. She alludes to her parents’ longevity, father ‘Digger’, dying a few years ago aged 93, her mother living into her 80s.

Her head shakes slightly, ‘I thought I had 23 years before I had to worry about all these decisions … what to do with things … ‘ Her voice trails off as her eyes drink in the beauty of flowers flourishing from the effect of an unusually cool Canberra summer providing higher than average rainfall.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I help her back inside wondering if this will be the last time I will feel the weight of her arm. The last time I brush fallen hair from her shoulders as her scalp reacts to the radiotherapy.

Why is the sun still shining? The magpies trilling? Laughter drifting from nearby apartments…

I recall a speech from one of the many Aboriginal women in our friendship circle. She thanked Margaret for all the books she bought her children over the years, the encouragement to access education. ‘One son got his PhD last year, all my girls have tertiary qualifications – thank you from the bottom of my heart.’

Others repeat similar sentiments. ‘You may not have any children of your own, but what you have done for our children means they are yours too!’

The seeds we sow. A wonderful legacy indeed, but I wish Margaret had another 23 years to sort out her life…

I wanted the last few days with her to be surreal and someone to wake me up and say it was all a dream. But of course I faced the reality of saying goodbye and dealing with my grief.

Now, with the reality of declining health I’ll hopefully adjust with similar dignity as Margaret when the inevitable must be faced – with luck still in the distance.

Then again, 2021 may hold bigger surprises than 2020 and they could be good!

That (wo)man is successful who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much, who has gained the respect of the intelligent men (and women) and the love of children; who has filled his(her) niche and accomplished his (her) task; who leaves the world better than he (she) found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who looked for the best in others and gave the best he(she) had.

Robert Louis Stevenson

 

Walking, Wellbeing, & Writing – a commonality beyond the first letter

woodland walk Aberdeen

It has been two weeks since my last post, but considering the hive of activity online with free courses, art-related and celebrity freebies, newspapers and journals unlocking paywalls, plus the constant news updates about the coronavirus, I doubt anyone has missed my jottings!

We also had Mother’s Day last weekend, which I enjoyed even if the movie and treats shared via ZOOM on the day because stage three lockdown still operated and Anne couldn’t visit.

MJ snapped this pic of one of the delightful gifts that arrived before the day. We laughed at this clever remix of Premier Daniel Andrews’ advice ONLY to happen when Lockdown is over.

The girls and I fangirls of the Victorian Premier who has shown impressive leadership through the COVID-19 crisis.

I have a feeling this will be a favourite number played in every pub/club in Melbourne when Victorians can truly ‘get on the beers‘ and socialise guilt-free!

(My preferred tipple is cider and here I am enjoying one after a day gardening…)

Get On The Beers

I know I’m not alone in receiving more parcel deliveries during the pandemic than in recent years. The service convenient, especially online grocery shopping, which I’ve found excellent.

If you can’t go out shopping safely,  how wonderful to receive deliveries.  I’ve loved receiving real mail in the mailbox other than bills, real estate ads and donation-seeking charity blurbs.

Good Things Come In Small & Big Packages

Students from past classes have posted lovely cards and letters asking after my welfare, and my incredible friend, Lisa, sent me a gorgeous box of super healthy fruit! 

My sister knitted a Rabbie Burns doll (oh, if I could write like him!) and I’m enjoying the beautiful indoor plant and excellent read (a biography of NZ PM) from the girls and looking forward to next weekend when Anne visits and we’ll play a new board game.

Another dear friend, Lesley dropped off flowers to plant after her husband, Ian did some culling.

A day in the garden aroused Josie’s interest and jealousy. She spent the next three days digging up the cuttings one by one!

Lesley assures me there are more cuttings on the way…

When Lesley delivered the cuttings, I could give her some freshly made Anzac biscuits – a firm favourite with me and the girls now I use the already mentioned recipe from the Jean Hailes Clinic!

I also gave a batch to Mark, my wonderful neighbour who while working from home offered to clean out the gutters and fix a broken bracket. Jobs he noticed needed doing. 

I truly am blessed with the people who come into my life!

flowers from Anne

I’m fortunate with the view from my window because watching the lorikeets visit to feed is a fantastic start to the day and I don’t notice if there is any work needing doing!

two lorikeets feeding

Social Distance Lorikeet Style
Mairi Neil

Lorikeets visit the bottlebrush to feed
Often lingering after munching on seed
Red and green flashes flutter and flitter
I watch from my window as they joyously twitter
Knowing they perceive humans as a threat
Ever alert to danger, we have never met
Even camera clicks produce a pause and glare
Their nervousness shames me – but I won’t despair
Some day I hope, love and trust we will share.
©2020

bridge over creek

I take every opportunity to laugh these days because, despite the worst-case scenarios not eventuating in Victoria and being a glass-half-full person, there have been days when anxiety about the present and the future has been almost overwhelming.

Living Dangerous
Mairi Neil

We will not forget the year 2020
Coronavirus stories will see to that
pandemic panic and widespread crying
no country free from the sick and dying
people forced to isolate and quarantine
practise social distancing
whether pauper or queen…

Wildlife too, adjusted behaviour
we will not forget the year 2020
many relationships shape-shifted
the Earth a pandemic was gifted…
Wildlife’s observations during isolation
would make any book they published
a headline grabber and selling sensation!

Life as I knew it will return in some form but until then…

A chat with Mary Jane, or a phone call or FaceTime with Anne or a friend always helps calm anxiety, but the best antidote is a lengthy daily walk with Josie, a companion like no other – her unconditional love brightens the day.

There are plenty of statistics about the health benefits of walking – not just the physical but emotional and mental health benefits. Plus, there are health benefits of owning a dog.

When the time suits, I’ll be out walking Josie without creating a schedule.

Whether the weather is the cliched ‘rain, hail or shine’, dressed appropriately I walk the dog – or rather Josie walks me!

Josie loves Mordialloc too, and when we are heading to friend Jillian’s house she breaks into a trot.

Walking and inhaling the beauty of our surrounds – neighbourhood gardens, Mordi streets, the parks, the Creek, the foreshore area… restores soul and energy – and we both know it.

The sea breeze rustles trees, birds sing from branches, insects hum and water ripples – nature’s beautiful chimes announce all is right with the world.

Walking is calming and observing details to write about helps me focus on anything but the troubles the world faces.

heron graceful

If confined to stay at home with no outside stimulation, I would retreat more often to the computer not doing anything productive. Crosswords and games online or scouring Internet articles interesting but not riveting or remotely relevant to current creative projects.

I’ve discovered I can spend the day doing absolutely nothing but going around in circles – literally hearing mum’s voice when she lamented, “I can’t get out of my own road.

I often think of Mum’s little sayings and they make perfect sense!

I know other friends have shared this experience – truly a sign of these times we are living through. Crises take effort to adjust despite the many ads about the pandemic proclaiming; we are all in this together – it is a shared global experience.

Hopefully, witnessing the effect on other countries, everyone will be more aware of how precious and fragile life on Earth is and the urgent need to address the effects of climate change and inequity – pressing issues BEFORE the pandemic.

The latest news from the USA is not surprising, showing it is the poor who suffer the most in a pandemic. The article refers to New York, but it is a similar story throughout the world – we may all be going through the same storm but are definitely not in the same boat!

I hope when the worst of the pandemic is over there is more effort to ensure sustainability and a healthy world for all living creatures wherever their home may be.

tree at creek - woman watching

How has your day been?‘ 

This is a daily question from Anne as she checks in on me.

If it wasn’t for the reflections and little ‘happenings’ from walking, I’m not sure our conversation would last long.

I don’t practice formal mindfulness, but when I walk with Josie, I find this is a time of peace and meditation. A time to focus on anything other than problems or worries.

Most days it is answering emails, sorting through old papers or photographs, cooking the dinner, trying out a cake or biscuit recipe, editing a short story or poem, weeding the garden, washing clothes… jumping from one task to another, no rhyme or reason…

Did I achieve or finish anything?

Does it matter?

There is pleasure in the hours of walking, observing, and greeting (from a distance) other dog walkers, friendly strangers, friends, and acquaintances not seen for a while!

People working from home or at home because they have lost their job walk for exercise and are more visible than when in their cars.

(A definite bonus of isolation is meeting people from the past. People I met when involved with Mordialloc Primary School, the Mordialloc Writers’ Group, and who attended writing workshops I’ve held.)

two cormorants perched

Protecting Wellbeing

Like many people, during the first few weeks of COVID-19 crisis, I had an almost unhealthy obsession with the news – not only of how the pandemic was playing out in Australia but each gruesome detail of disastrous death tolls and the lockdowns in Asia, Europe, UK and USA.

I soon discovered the day much better if I limited the news source to one or two outlets, only once a day or even news-free days.

My daughters agree:

Think of your blood pressure Mum’

‘You’re dealing with cancer – one crisis at a time’

‘Let us worry about that – we’ll do the shopping’

… and true to their word, I don’t have to go anywhere except for medical visits and exercise – the latter entails gardening and walking the dog. 

Safe and contactless living!

Friends and family I haven’t been able to connect with face to face have stayed connected over the Internet and by phone. The severe social consequences some have suffered because of isolation hasn’t happened to me.

The change in circumstances has made me think more deeply from the perspective of those with disabilities or illness who always have a limited connection with the outside world and must rely entirely on carers.

Let’s hope some creative ways ZOOM and similar programs have been used to provide services will remain and give access to a richer day to those permanently socially distanced!

mushroom half circle

My walks alternate between Mordialloc Creek and McDonald Street football oval and surrounds plus wandering around the suburban streets.

Joyful as this is, I know Josie will be beside herself when we return to the off-leash dog park and she catches up with other dogs en masse. Dogs are pack animals and not overly enamoured with social distancing.

Josie loves to chase and fetch. When off-leash, she’ll be able to exercise her full potential running after balls thrown from the special holder we have to turn the ball into a long-distance missile. 

a different view of creek

Seasons Don’t Recognise Pandemics

The change from summer to autumn in the gardens has been delightful to watch. Gardens seem to have been a riot of colour this year and people have worked hard transforming their gardens or homes with imagination.

A house where a couple created a beautiful Japanese-type garden is now up for lease – maybe it is their retirement income. Kudos to them both for putting so much effort into a garden for others to enjoy. Josie and I enjoyed our daily chats and seeing the shrubs, pavers and water feature being installed.

yellow roses and lavender

I’ve watched a house around the corner being built and Josie has loved the attention from the tradies.

 

It has been pleasant to have so few cars parked in the street because of fewer commuters and no U3A classes in the Allan McLean Hall at the end of the street.

Lockdown rules changed after Mother’s Day, allowing small gatherings, businesses and workplaces to open if they can manage the social distancing guidelines. People are visiting friends and family and larger groups play or exercise in the parks or practise sport.

People are resilient, small businesses often adapt – I spotted this van in Albert Street.

cafe starstruck-cute name

But people are hurting and the local Presbyterian church recognises this and has set up a community pantry.

However, not a lot has changed in my little bubble but then apart from the dramatic decrease in traffic and more people walking and chalked pavements from kids being schooled at home, not much seemed to change in Mordialloc at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown.

We are a coastal suburb with plenty of open space and I have been steering clear of busy shopping centres since Christmas because of poor health. Other suburbs will have their unique experiences.

cormorant like a statue

Now to writing:

Where do you go for serenity?

This is something to reflect on and write about  – it might be helpful to first record where you go or what you usually do to ease anxiety.

If yoga class is something you do, or dancing or working out at the gym many of these now have classes online you may have joined.

You may favour a room, a church, a friend’s house, or a special tree in your garden.

Or perhaps you indulge in an activity like writing or walking… maybe sewing or cooking…

Your serenity place or activity may be difficult to substitute during the lockdown, or you might have found it easy to adapt.

Do you have a special place you visit only once or twice a year? A place that may hold a strong emotional attachment or memory? Writing about it may help capture the calmness and peacefulness the place represents. 

Perhaps there is there an activity or place in your daily routine easily adapted to isolation rules.

Here are more writing suggestions:

  • Imagine yourself where you find serenity. Why are you there? Has something prompted the visit?
  • Describe your serenity setting.
  • Compare at least two visits to your serenity place.
  • What happens when this place disturbed, or no longer available, or your plans must change?
  • Do you have an alternative?
  • Write a poem inspired by the word serenity.

What is the opposite of serenity for you? Is there one particular time that stands out?

Write about how you unwind or handle anxiety – this may have changed over the years.

List the various ways you are meeting the challenge of isolation and practising social-distancing. 

Did you ever consider ‘stress’ before it became a much talked about ‘modern’ disease?

(When I recorded the history of our local primary school in Mordialloc on its 125th anniversary, I interviewed many past students and staff.  I’ve never forgotten a woman who attended the school during the depression years of the 1930s and coped through the war years commenting,  ‘ No one had stress then – we just got on with life.’)

Reflect on the lives of your parents and grandparents. Do you think they suffered stress – even if they didn’t call it that?

Do you know how they dealt with the tough periods of their lives? Were the pace of life and the responsibilities they had really that different from nowadays? If so – how?

ducks happy

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.

Steve Jobs

Happy Writing!

Let Imagination Loose in Lockdown & Learn That Writing Creatively Is Fun

pavement writing.jpg

The Power of Exercise

We advise athletes to perform warm-up routines before playing a sport, musicians and singers use warm-up exercises too, and in writing class, prompts and creative writing exercises loosen your imagination while honing your writing muscles.

Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.

Ernest Hemingway

In Class, We Splurge!

The goal of the prompts is to encourage clear, lively writing.  Encourage the use of specific images, well-chosen verbs and precise nouns, “showing rather than telling” and to avoid clichés.

To achieve this ideal takes practice, practice, practice!

The exercises are often more fun in a class, or with two or more people, but doing them alone and at home is fun too. 

 

FB_IMG_the power of words.jpg
Facebook meme telling it how it is

 

If, while writing, you’re at a loss how to continue writing consider the five senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste); or shift your perspective from high to low (what’s happening in the sky or the floor above or underground, under the sea, in a cellar…), from close to far away; or consider the journalist’s five questions—who, what, when, where, why.

Think of character development, theme and mood and always think of your audience – who are you writing for (and it is okay to be writing for yourself!).

  • Choose a prompt – and remember, you can take as little of the prompt as you want – one word or the memory or idea it evokes…  
  • Weigh a few possibilities (brainstorm, mind map, outline, list)
  • Write without interruption for 12-15 minutes. (Use an oven timer or the stopwatch facility on your mobile)
  • Be surprised at what comes up and continue to write… and remember, you can always change your mind and choose a different prompt. At home, you are teacher, student, writer and reader.

If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.

Somerset Maugham

Variety The Spice of Imagination

First lines, ideas for beginnings:

  • It was no ordinary date…
  • It was no ordinary house…
  • She was no ordinary babysitter…
  • ‘Look, I didn’t want to be a refugee.’
  • ‘Three things happened this morning but only one changed my life.’
  • ‘Welcome aboard,’ said the captain, but his smile didn’t reach his eyes.’

Describe a first – why is it memorable?:

  • Your first kiss, first car, the first job
  • Your first pet (kitten/puppy/ rabbit/bird, lizard…)
  • Your first child, first grandchild, first sibling
  • Your first day of school, your first day of university
  • Your first night in a bed by yourself or away from home

Fibs, Excuses, Embellishments, Wishful Thinking …

  • The dog ate my homework.
  • She said, ‘It’s not you, it’s me,’ but I knew she was lying.
  • The weekly horoscope said 5 and 8 were my lucky numbers.
  • I was here the whole time, you just didn’t see me.
  • The alarm didn’t go off.
  • He was in the supermarket too. It can’t be a coincidence.

 

FB_IMG_1588317818987
Facebook meme

 

Quotes To Inspire A Reflection, Prose or Poem… Write Your Truth, Your Experience, Your Pleasure, To Know More,

  1. The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can. ~ Neil Gaiman
  2. Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come the most unsought for are commonly the most valuable. ~ Francis Bacon
  3. If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it. ~ Anais Nin
  4. I write for myself things that I’ve gone through. ~ Dolly Parton
  5. Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The keyword is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for. ~ Ray Bradbury
  6. Usually, I walk and think about things. When I come across a thought that makes me laugh, I write it down. ~Demetri Martin
  7. Writing a story… is simply an exploration of the nature of behaviour: why people do what they do, how it affects others, how we change and grow, and what decisions we make along the way. ~ Lois Lowry
  8. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. ~ Joan Didion

I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.

Erica Jong

quote from Alice Hoffman NYTimes

Choose three prompts from the suggestions above or write whatever thoughts they triggered… look at the challenge as an exercise to warm-up the process, one for ‘homework’ and one to move out of your comfort zone and instil a passion for writing!

Here are three efforts from me triggered by prompts and written in class during a splurge:

Coming of Age by Mairi Neil, flash fiction 516 words https://mairineil.com

Accidental future, a short story of 383 words by Mairi Neil

An isolated event, short story 736 words by Mairi Neil

Try the following exercise frequently to hone your writing skills:

  • Create a short story that is 26 sentences long, each sentence beginning with the letters of the alphabet starting with A and continuing to Z. 
  • Add other, arbitrary conditions, such as a sentence should be only one word; there should be one question mark, one quotation, there has to be a definite beginning, middle and end – no loose anecdotes or ramblings. There must be a story, not just a stream of consciousness!
  • Rigid rules often produce fascinating results—such as with well-written sonnets, which have 14 lines and tight rhyme schemes, each line governed by a specific number of syllables and alternating stressed and unstressed syllables.
  • Apply some form and rigid rules to your stories and see if that makes writing – and finishing – easier.

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

Douglas Adams

And remember…

  • Make time in your schedule for writing.  
  •  When you sit down to write, don’t be afraid of how it will come out.  
  •  Take pleasure in exercising your imagination and writing.   
  •  Always celebrate the work you’ve done, no matter the result.  Having shown up and done the work, kept to a plan or deadline is an accomplishment. Share here or email it to a friend or send it off to a competition – be brave:) 
  •  Trust that you’re making progress, a little at a time, day by day – and have fun!

It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.

C. J. Cherryh

 

FB_meme about reading
Facebook meme

 

April 2020 has come and gone, but COVID-19 lingers on…

FB_IMG_polar bears
Facebook meme

For over a month now, every state in Australia has been in some form of lockdown and the measures taken by various levels of government appear to have worked.  Unlike other parts of the world, we have successfully flattened the curve quickly and some states are looking at some relief from isolation by relaxing social distancing advice.

However, in Australia people have died and lives of many changed forever.

Each day there are still fresh cases of coronavirus reported, but nowhere near the numbers other countries are recording. Social distancing and quarantining appear to have worked because most of the population have respected the need for and obeyed the rules and the various public health messages.

In my little corner of Mordialloc, it has been strange–and very pleasant–to see less traffic and few parked cars. People are going on family walks,  strolling in pairs or singly, entire families take the dog for a walk! Children play in the street, and chalk rainbows, love hearts, and well wishes.

All of this reminiscent of my childhood in the 50s (Scotland) and 60s (Australia).

Friends in other places have similar observations with a friend in Aberdeen who walks several miles a day through the lovely countryside of Inverurie, commenting when she rang me that the lack of cars has meant less pollution. She only washes her hair every few days rather than daily and no ‘black muck’ appears in the water!

A Time of Reflection

The last few weeks I’ve put up posts with ideas and prompts to help people who want to write or who have been writing but can’t go to classes or their usual groups because of COVID-19.

For some people writing will be a fill-in hobby, others may dream of a novel or collection of short stories sitting in a bookshop window.

There will be people writing life stories or a memoir which is a slice of their life, perhaps family history or researching for a school project or essay.

Feedback suggests the posts have been helpful but now as we near a ‘new normal’, perhaps it is time to record the experiences you’ve had over this period. You can incorporate them in a poem or short story or journal about them – but leaving some record for future generations is helpful – create a time capsule if you will…

People will look for historical records about the pandemic,  just as we’ve seen plenty of articles about the 1918 Flu Epidemic, the Ebola and SARS outbreaks and even the Bubonic Plague.

“If writers stopped writing about what happened to them, then there would be a lot of empty pages.”

Elaine Liner

  • List what you have been doing to cope
  • How is it different from life before lockdown and social distancing
  • Make note of what you like and what you don’t like about isolation – I know some people have already made resolutions to value friendship and family more, live with less material things, value the environment more…
  • Ponder how your life has changed and whether any behaviours or activities will remain even once free of lockdown restrictions

This is a monumental period in history – global pandemics do not happen that often!

  • You may have experienced personal tragedy but also joy, or have knowledge of someone whose journey has differed from yours.
  •  Have you made recent friends, lost established friends, or discovered qualities such as strengths or failings in people, whether family members or in the community?
  • What new skills have you learned?
  • What old skills have you revived?
  • Has your opinion of technology changed? Have you improved/increased your use of technology or do you regret your lack of knowledge?
  • How is homeschooling or working from home actually working out?
  • Have you received or sent parcels? What were the contents? How did the experience work out?
  • Are you a hoarder, panic buyer or did you manage to go without those items in much demand like toilet paper, flour, pasta and rice.
  • Did your use of social media increase, decrease, what you shared change?
  • Did you join any new online groups?

Have you ‘hit the wall’ yet – how are your anxiety levels?

FB_meme about skills
Facebook meme

Are You More Present in Your Life?

mugs with a message.jpg
presents my eldest daughter sent during isolation

Rich sensory experiences surround us daily — IF we take the time to observe and as writers note them down.

Become a keen observer and recorder of the sensory intricacies of life.  Make it a habit to jot down your observances in a journal or snap a photo to remind you of the weather, the season, the unusual occurrence… on my daily walks with Josie, I take at least one photograph of something interesting or new I notice –  a cloud formation or blossoming flower.

Sometimes these changes are close to home – like this Yucca plant of mine that has flowered for the first time in nearly a decade! And the interesting fungi in the front garden – in fact fungi seems to mushroom all over Mordialloc – or maybe I’m just noticing it more.

Or these pigeons sitting in a bird bath – can you imagine the conversation? The one in my garden annoys the lorikeets but loves feeding on the seeds they spit out, and the ones on the deserted footy oval are excellent at social distancing.

What stories can you make up?

Have the parcel postman or couriers visited more than usual?

Contactless deliveries can bring surprises – write the story behind the parcels:

I haven’t seen my daughter, Anne, for weeks because of COVID-19 restrictions and miss her. I know she misses me and her sister but also misses Josie, our Kelpie/Staffy Cross who gives us so much pleasure. She has earned this certificate made by number two daughter, Mary Jane:

She got a special delivery from Anne to celebrate her first year with us. Josie was a rescue dog but with the Pet Circle parcel became a lucky dog!

I received a parcel to learn pottery, a gift that gives twice because the arts and crafts have suffered from the economic shutdown and this helps to keep a small workshop viable.

One of my sisters sent me a knitted version of my favourite poet Rabbie Burns – knitting her forte but new projects helping her cope with being stuck more inside than usual and of showing she is thinking of family.

The picture of the praying mantis snapped by me after my daughter told me we had a visitor at the door!

Small delights happen every day and we mustn’t forget to notice and appreciate them and let our imagination roam.

Devote some time to dwell on daydreams. They are spontaneous messages from our subconscious. Not everyone has a daydream-friendly mind. In fact, some people have been taught to repress daydreams as mere distractions.

As writers, however, we should not only welcome daydreams but train ourselves to be aware of them. In fact, the core of most of my novels has come from daydreams. Daydreams are our primal storyteller at work, sending us scenes and topics that our imagination or subconscious wants us to investigate.

Each day, we should devote time (I usually do this before sleeping) to reviewing our daydreams and determining which of them insists on being turned into a story. Don’t push away those daydreams that make you uncomfortable: The more shocking the daydream, the more truthful about us it is. Embrace that truth.

David Morrell

Have Your Rituals Changed?

I’m retired from teaching at the moment – the return of breast cancer and arrival of coronavirus a perfect storm.

My morning ritual of observing the visiting lorikeets goes on for an extended period now and I never tire watching them come and go to feed at other times of the day or enjoying each other’s company in the bottlebrush outside my bedroom window.

Here is a slice of life short story of what my morning used to be like: Mornings by Mairi Neil, a slice of life

Josie enjoys watching them too.

Do you have a morning ritual? Has it changed recently like mine has?

Are you doing more cooking? Experimenting? There was a shortage of flour, eggs, sugar – in fact, lots of items disappeared from supermarket shelves in panic buying sprees. This made for some creative recipes being shared on social media.

I received an interesting recipe from the Jean Hailes Clinic for Women’s Health devised by naturopath and herbalist Sandra Villella, and because coronavirus disrupted ANZAC Day this year; I tried the new recipe for Anzac Biscuits and can testify to their yumminess (how healthy is that)!

anzac biscuits.jpg

This variation of Anzac biscuits is a healthier alternative to traditional Anzacs and results in a dark, slightly chewy variety of the biscuit. We understand some ingredients may be difficult to find in supermarkets at present. You could try your local health food shop, otherwise use the substitutes listed under ‘Ingredients’. You’ll still be getting the low-GI goodness of rolled oats.

  • 1 cup wholemeal spelt flour
  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 1 cup desiccated coconut or shredded coconut
  • ¾ cup coconut sugar
  • 125g butter
  • 2 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • ½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

Substitutions (which I used)

Swap the wholemeal spelt flour for plain or wholemeal flour
Swap the coconut sugar for white sugar
Swap the maple syrup for golden syrup

Method: Preheat oven to 160°C and line 2 baking trays with baking paper.
In a large bowl, combine flour, oats, coconut and coconut sugar.
In a small saucepan, stir the butter and maple syrup over medium heat until butter melts and the mixture is smooth. Take off the heat. Stir the bicarbonate of soda with the water and add to butter and maple syrup.
Add to the oat mixture and stir well to combine.
Roll level tablespoons of the mixture into balls and flatten.
Bake in the oven for 15 minutes or until golden.
Allow to cool for 10 minutes and then transfer to a wire cooling rack.

Nutritional Info: Our knowledge of nutrition has progressed somewhat since World War II. We now know that we need to eat more whole-foods and less processed foods. While these biscuits are still a sweet treat, the maple syrup is far less processed than golden syrup traditionally used in Anzac biscuits. Coconut sugar is a lower GI alternative compared to white sugar and provides small amounts of nutrients not found in white sugar. The goodness of rolled oats, an excellent source of beta-glucan soluble fibre that helps to reduce cholesterol; combined with wholemeal spelt flour, provides healthy whole grains to balance out the sweetness.

Has technology been Your Friend or Foe?

learning ZOOM
Another Facebook meme

I’m lucky because I’ve kept abreast of many of the changes in technology and my computer literacy and competency better than others in my age group. Both my daughters are highly skilled with technology so they fill any gaps exposed when dealing with this catastrophic virus.

I downloaded and have now used ZOOM several times. The first time there were minor glitches but subsequently, there have been no problems.

  • Courtesy of the Health Issues Centre, I’ve heard medical experts and local consumer health reps discuss the current crisis and offer opinions, ideas and suggestions to the government.
  • Courtesy of the Australia Institute, I’ve listened to economic experts and been able to ask questions of them, including the Shadow Treasurer, Jim Chalmers MP and hope to take part in other sessions with Media, Environmental and Arts representatives.
  • Courtesy of the trade union movement, I’ve taken part in sessions with the first woman ACTU Secretary, Sally McManus and the first woman General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, Sharan Burrow.

Many organisations are organising online discussions and hoping for feedback from as many ordinary Australians as possible.  This is an unusual time and who knows how much more difficult life will become after the health crisis eases and we must face a devastating economic crisis.

Stay informed, raise your voice, be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

My daughters have used ZOOM and other platforms to catch up with friends all over Australia and internationally, and many people rely on similar software while working from home.

We have had trivia and movie nights and I love hearing the laughter when a group of them get together but I know many people are not so fortunate.

What have been your experiences with technology? Do you have a disaster or comical story? Do you use Face Time on Messenger?

What type of social media helps you stay in touch with those you can’t visit? Or do you prefer a phonecall, text and email?

Facetime becomes a regular thing
The first time, I contacted my daughter via Messenger at beginning of COVID-19 crisis

Here is a piece of flash fiction inspired by a sound (I mentioned incorporating sound in a previous post). The setting is in the 1930s when the world went through the Great Depression – yes; we have survived economic crises before too. Night Terror by Mairi Neil, flash fiction.

But to end on a funny note involving current times and technology, here is another Facebook meme doing the rounds.

FB_autumn not available

Two days ago we experienced the coldest April day on record in Melbourne.

storm brewing

Today is definitely wintry – stay safe inside, stay well and stay strong – and scratch that pen or tap the keyboard. If all ideas fail, you can do what people normally do when they get together – but write don’t talk about the weather!

Long patience and application saturated with your heart’s blood – you will either write or you will not – and the only way to find out whether you will or not is to try.

Jim Tully, Writer’s Digest 1923

Happy Writing

 

 

The sound of Isolation & Quarantine – What sounds do you miss or enjoy?

my manual typewriter.jpg
The typewriter with italic type my parents bought me for my 18th birthday.

Day 22 – I’ve stopped counting – have you?

In life, we use five senses and if a writer, we should also use them in our writing to allow the readers to experience poems and prose on all levels.

In previous posts, I’ve talked about other senses and today I’ll concentrate on the sounds in the real world and the world you create when writing.

We are farewelling autumn in Melbourne and because of the COVID-19 lockdown and social distancing, there were some traditional sounds missing from Melburnian lives – minimum playing in parks and on beaches, football and other sporting games cancelled and the annual ANZAC Day celebrations and accompanying parades didn’t happen – although we did light up the dawn

Autumn
Mairi Neil

Autumn… the clocks change
a time to enjoy
an extra hour
snuggled beneath the doona

Autumn… walks in the park
crunching leaves underfoot
a season with warm days
pretending summer still around

Autumn… vibrant flowers
a time of colourful
rainbows dropping from trees
playing peek-a-boo through fences

Autumn… a season to pause
contemplate winter’s chill
prepare body and soul
with warming soups and good books

Autumn… a time of contemplation
remembering sacrifice
The Easter story and ANZAC
Love and Hope the best human qualities

© 2013

donna's alarm clock

Write about the sounds of your autumn – before coronavirus and what you have experienced recently. What daily sounds do you notice in isolation?

Extend your thoughts and think of a sound that isn’t around anymore: the click of typewriter keys, the tone that played during the test pattern on 1950s TVs, the brrrring of your portable alarm clock, the sound of the dial turning on a telephone, the theme of an old TV or radio program, the sound of a former pet’s paws on the hardwood floor, the sound of the doorbell of a house you used to live in, a steam train’s whistle, the clink of milk bottles…

What memories do those sounds conjure up? What rooms, people, neighbourhoods and workplaces do you see in your imagination?

Remember the starting handles for cars? Remember, an overheated radiator often spoiled trips in the summer, or cars refusing to start in winter?

Did the roar of a neighbour’s motorbike wake you up, or did they have a Holden V8?  What about church bells ringing, a grandfather clock striking? Someone practising a musical instrument (bagpipes/drums), off-key singing – an acoustic versus electric guitar? The tap of dance shoes or a walking stick, the squeak of a pram or wheelchair?

What sounds do you hear now?

  • does a tree mulcher or leaf blower shatter your peace?
  • perhaps a chainsaw cutting trees down
  • how noisy are the garbage men? Do you remember the days of chasing your bin lids down the street?
  • do neighbours have hens – a rooster? Or perhaps a pig?
  • what about someone learning a musical instrument?
  • did you ever stop and listen while someone played a street piano, a busker played their fiddle or guitar?

Sounds of Albert Street
Mairi Neil

In the morning, at dawn break
in a dreamlike state
I wake…

to sounds that jar
electric train whistle
whine of car, after car…

a distant noticeable rumble
the roar of the sea
as white caps tumble…

I picture huge waves crashing
spewing debris ashore
against pier and rocks splashing –

on the street, horses make
a constant clip-clop
as daily exercise take…

familiar daily tapping
announced in suburbia
by family dogs yapping.

a dawn chorus will sing
curlews, starlings, magpies
heralding Spring…

twittering, cawing, whistling
blackbirds, seagulls and crows
dewy feathers a-glistening

© 1994 small talk, poems for children, Employ Publishing Group.

If you are writing a memoir or a historical story or novel, pay a visit to your local museum for research. If you’re lucky, there will be firsthand accounts and exhibits of household and workplace equipment and tools to remind you to include authentic descriptions and sounds.

Spend some time brainstorming a list of descriptive words that you can refer to when needing inspiration. Continually add to your list, expanding memories and categories as they evolve.  Your list could look like this:

  • the soft sound of someone breathing or harsh gasp of breath
  • buzz of a chainsaw (or bees)
  • drone of an aircraft or car
  • bark, yap, yelp, howl of a dog – think of other animals noises
  • rumble of thunder, wheels on concrete – an empty stomach, that can also grumble
  • rustle of leaves, bushes, trees, pages of a book
  • gurgle of a drain, water in a hose, water down the plughole
  • the wail of a child, or laugh and giggle
  • quiet as midnight, the hush of morning, the silence of sadness….

Writing Exercise 1:

Choose any of these images, think of the sounds you will hear if you are also in the picture. Write a story or poem, or memory.

Writing Exercise 2:

Extend one or all of these sentences to make the situation real – pick any genre, add a character, theme and plot – or write a poem. (Team it up with one of the images  on this post perhaps?)

  • The kitten MIAOWED when I left for work.
  • The puppy BARKED when I left for my jog/to go shopping.
  • The tree branches SWAYED in the wind.
  • The cursor MOVES across the computer screen.
  • The clock TICK-TOCKED in the kitchen.

Sounds for excitement or pizazz

In a piece of writing, a sentence including descriptions of noises creates a strong atmosphere. It rouses the reader’s excitement.

Background Noises

Sound unrelated to the action but characterise the place is perfect for creating atmosphere. You can combine several sounds in a single sentence:

  • An empty beer can clattered along the pavement
  • Keyboards clacked, papers rustled, and printers whirred
  • Upstairs a toilet flushed and water gurgled down the drainpipe
  • Thunder rumbled in the distance, lightning flashed
  • Washing machines sloshed, driers rumbled and coins rattled into slots
  • Motors whined, and tyres screeched on the tarmac
  • Hooves clattered on the cobblestones below
  • The train sped up with a low growl that rose to a high whine within moments
  • Thunder roared, and raindrops hammered against the glass
  • The fire in the grate crackled and red gum logs hissed and popped
  • the engine throbbed as the waves slapped the side of the boat
  • ice clinked in the glass as Bond poured her a martini

Writing Background Noise

You can insert a sentence about background noises in any part of the scene where it makes sense. For example:

  1. The point of view character is waiting (for a job interview, a medical appointment, a rescue, an execution, an exam…) what do they hear? Inside and/or outside noises?
  2. A character pauses or delays replying. A sentence like this implies the pause and is more interesting than ‘he paused’ or ‘she hesitated’… what can fill the silence?
  3. To emphasise an exciting moment. Is there a clap of thunder, applause, a balloon popping, laughter…?
  4. To further raise the tension in a suspenseful situation, insert a sentence about background noise the moment the reader holds his/her breath.
  5. When the setting is dark (at night, or in a cellar), sprinkle sounds throughout the scene to add to the mood suspense, to ground the reader.

Here are two different pieces of short fiction including background and action sounds:

The write detail by mairi neil 1065 words

The airport by Mairi Neil, flash creative non-fiction, 674 words

Writing Exercise 3:

The sounds mentioned above may inspire you;  think about the examples shown and write a scene with background noises to create a realistic scene and draw the reader in.

Action Sounds

Whenever characters do something – walk, work, fight or rest – their actions, even if in a small setting, will create a link between the action and the setting.

Emphasise this link, especially if you want the reader to become immersed in the story. The best way to do this is by describing the sounds arising from the characters’ interaction with the environment.

  • She ran out, banging the door behind her.
  • The door slammed shut behind her.

Here are some other examples:

  1. The door screeched on its hinges
  2. I sank into the armchair, and the cushion wheezed.
  3. The seat squeaked under his weight.
  4. Stairs creaked as she retired to bed.
  5. Gravel crunched under their feet.
  6. The wheeled suitcase rattled across cracked paving-slabs.
  7. The light plane trundled over the patched tarmac.
  8. The windshield wipers scraped the glass.
  9. The grandfather clock chimed midnight.
  10. The lift shook and grunted to a stop.
  11. His breath rasped as he scraped the mud off his boots.
  12. The car keys jangled in the air as he tempted her to go for a drive.

Writing Exercise 4:

Use some above examples to write a story or poem, or perhaps a memory, or let the following images inspire you:

  • When I visited London in 2017, Big Ben was under renovation, but it still worked.
  • International tourists cluster beneath Melbourne Central’s famous musical clock as it opens up to reveal Australia’s famous birds
  • Have you seen or heard any other famous clocks?

What about the clock at Melbourne’s National Art Gallery – what would it feel like to be trapped in a time warp, or trapped inside a clock?

There are famous bells like this ship’s bell in Shetland and the one aboard the Rainbow Warrior – exciting tales of shipwrecks and rescues make a great story with plenty of sounds of the sea and storms:

Sound – the waves crashed on the rocks, the gulls screaming above.
Sight – the heavy, grey rocks look as if they will slide into the leaden sea.
Touch -the wind lifts my hair and sudden gusts sting my face.
Taste – the spray from the waves leave salt on my lips

Do you have a travel tale? A character who goes on a spiritual journey?

There are pictures of churches and temples and tourist attractions to inspire imagination or memory –

Home Delivery of Milk

Sometimes photos remind us of how sex-segregated occupations were in years past. When I was young, librarians were primarily female and milk was delivered by males. Many streets had a post where the horse-drawn milk delivery cart could be tied up.

When I migrated to Croydon in 1962 there was still a horse trough in the main street. And in Mordialloc in the 80s there was one outside Davis’ Laundry in Bear Street. (horse trough and laundry both gone)

The horse always knew where to stop on the route and wait until the milkman delivered the bottles. When I arrived in Australia as a nine-year-old, I thought it was wonderful to have a horse and cart bring the milk and often cadged a ride from the milkman.

Did you ever talk to the milkman or his horse? Feed it? Collect the manure for the garden? Describe a scene you remember including sounds, smells, taste.

Was milk delivered to your home when you were young? If so, did the milkman bring any other items? Can you remember a coalman, firewood being delivered, soft drink (Loys), the iceman?  Did you have a refrigerator or an icebox?

Great grandparents may have kept the milk cool in a small stream that ran across their property, or in a bath of cold water. Write about your childhood memories of home deliveries of milk and possibly other groceries.

How often were the deliveries? Daily? Can you remember when deliveries stopped – how did you or your parents feel? Were you over-awed at the first supermarket visit? Were you friendly with the milk bar or corner shop owners? 

Have you had home deliveries during the lockdown? How different was that experience from earlier days? Can you imagine home deliveries for a range of goods resuming by drone??

What things are better left in the past and what’s your ideal future?

In the mornings, when the light of day is breaking do you imagine you can still hear the sound of glass milk bottles in wire baskets heading to your front door?

Did you go to the local dairy and get milk and bottles of cream in glass jars?

Reflect on how the way you shop and what you shop for has changed – emphasising sound.

Here is a Facebook meme that made me smile because I still have one of these by my bedside!

Do you wake up to the radio – can you remember a memorable news story that shocked you awake? For me, there were two that stand out: the Port Arthur massacre and the World Trade Centre’s 9/11…

FB_IMG_my current clock!

Writers describe a sound when the situation draws attention to it – a door creaks, so your protagonist turns her head. They can also use a sound for effect – to get on the reader’s nerves, to alarm or relax them. The soothing babble of a little brook is comforting but the shrieking sound of nails scratching over a chalkboard, the exact opposite.

Has a sudden or particular sound frightened you? Acoustic shock effects are deeply ingrained in most readers. The sudden uproar of a roaring chainsaw is frightening enough, but if it is wielded by a madman bent on murder, you’ve got your shock value!

Nowadays, if writing sci-fi you’d be describing the noise of lightsabers!

star wars premiere.jpg

Good writers use all the senses to give readers a multi-dimensional experience. Using the senses evokes feelings and responses in the reader.

Senses like sight, sound, and smell can also build tension.

When you’re writing, think about using all the senses to allow your readers to immerse themselves in the world and lives of the characters. Try to incorporate these into your writing.

The most engrossing books are the ones that draw us into their world and evoke many sensations and emotions.

The reader doesn’t just experience what the main character can see. Using sounds and smells can evoke pain and fear.

Great writers make our mouths water as we read about sumptuous feasts, gasp as the main character touches something that they’re not supposed to and grimace when they taste a bitter berry that could be poisonous.

Write a little every day, without hope and without despair.

Isak Dinesen

Happy Writing

Writing Techniques Add Value To Poems & Prose

Nobuko looking towards Mordialloc 2020.jpg

Day 21 -We’re still trying for fun!

We are still in stage 3 Lockdown and still practising social distancing – but not from our pens or computer keyboard!

It’s easy to write poorly, but it’s hard to write poorly every day. Wait. Let’s go back a step: It’s hard to write every day.

Rebecca Blood

Writing is a craft and like all crafts there are techniques to improve your work and to make it stand out from others. One such writing technique or device is personification.

PERSONIFICATION is giving human qualities, feelings, actions or characteristics to an inanimate or non-human object. This can include giving human characteristics to animals or animal characteristics to humans or even writing a story from an object’s point of view.

For example: the window winked at me (winking is a human action, the window is an object); the tree clawed at me – tree branches are not human arms.

  • Personification enriches poetry and prose and may be culturally biased because writers experiment, they express their emotions, reflect their upbringing and education and life experience. They will write personal views of certain human attributes, cultural perceptions, and sayings when they write creatively.
  • Personification is probably the most common figure of speech we come across and most of us use examples several times a day in speech and writing without realising we do.
  • Personification injects human behaviour into material objects or abstract concepts.

Advertisers and marketers use it to sell products all the time. For example: health educators will try to make vegetables exciting to children. 

We talk about shoes killing us, colours screaming, a furious sea battering the coastline, a doona smothering us, the wind crying, howling or whispering…

TV adverts talk about cancer as if it is a bullying soldier, an invading army, an enemy of the state… if you have cancer we must battle it.

A house might be a demanding baby to be soothed by a coat of paint…

Pay attention to the seductive ditties, words, arguments in marketing and you’ll understand the value of personification to persuade an audience, drawing them into a world they identify.

Contemplating our own mortality is a struggle and confronting – death is a taboo subject to many families and cultures, so we use personification to describe our feelings:

  • The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the New Testament – usually named as war, famine, disease and death.
  • We have depicted death as a serious farm worker (the Grim Reaper) – remember the Aids campaign?
  • An old woman with a broom (always witch-like) also used to represent death!

There are various representations for someone described as a fox:  a sly old fox, a silver-haired fox, a vixen, a good hunter, an evil marauder, a thief, a murderer… depends on your point of view or experience of foxes and what the story is about.

FB_IMG_fox

The Poetry Foundation suggests:

  • It’s so easy to personify that many poets don’t realise they’re doing it. Be mindful of your personification tools and use them sparingly.
  • Don’t be obscure – if you are writing about a gymnast, readers shouldn’t think you are writing about a light bulb or a tree.

In Emily Dickinson’s poem Death is a gentleman with impeccable good manners –

Because I could not stop for Death
He Kindly stopped for me
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
And Immortality.

  • Personification can pack a punch.

In 1819, cavalry charged into an unarmed crowd of men, women and children demanding parliamentary reform in Manchester, in the north of England.

About 20 people died and over 400 wounded. The tragedy shocked the country, and it became known as the Peterloo Massacre (the battle of Waterloo occurred four years earlier.)

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem about the incident reveals his anger and contempt for the politicians fighting the reforms and who he blames for the shocking tragedy:

I met Murder on the way
He had a mask like Castlereagh
Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell,
And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and from,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them

  • Personification can reduce big concepts, events, even people or authority to a level we can understand. It can turn the ordinary into something extraordinary, memorable, or at least something we see with new eyes.

from museum exhibit 2019.jpg

What kind Of Person?

Decide what kind of personal traits or career each of the following could be. Write a sentence or perhaps write a character profile for a story:

In case you are uninspired or unsure, I’ve shared a range of responses from past students:

A shark – a used car salesman, someone in marketing, a predator
A goat – a good climber, a person who eats anything, someone with a ravenous appetite, a stubborn old goat, mindless, randy, agile, nimble, single-minded, socially and physically active
A worm – a bookworm, wriggly, a crawler, worm their way into affections, slimy, shy, retiring
A rabbit – skittery, timid, shy, bright-eyed, brainless, harmless, breed like a rabbit, sexually irresponsible, randy, cuddly, fluffy bunny
A leech – clingy, bloodsucker, parasite, ingratiating, an invader,
An elephant – good memory, solid, stoic, get with the strength, clumsy, blunders, too big for their boots
A snake – slithery, slippery, dishonest, shedding skin, a fake, a bigamist, dangerous, untrustworthy
A wombat – hides away, muddleheaded, determined, a night worker, sleepy, retiring type
A lamb – innocent, vulnerable, frolics, gambols, meek, religious person, a follower
A rat – selfish, sneaky, dangerous, untrustworthy, crafty, survivor, deserter, attacker, insatiable

The sun 

  • When the sun entered the room, he threw his bright light into a dark corner.
  • Her warm orange glow made everyone feel better.
  • In the evening, she is a buxom wench in flame-coloured taffeta.
  • He is the centre of our world, and the day pivots around him.

A Shadow

  • The shadow crept around the building as furtive as a thief.
  • She huddled cold and forlorn in the shadow, praying for rescue.

A bushfire

  • The bushfire raged throughout the night, destroying everything in his path.

Thunder & Lightning

  • The thunder roared and lightning flashed and she knew the two giants would fight all night.

Earthquake

  • The earthquake swallowed the city in several angry bites.

We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.

Kurt Vonnegut

black-cat-roof.jpg

Cat on Condominium Rooftop
Mairi Neil

Soaking up the sun
green eyes ignore life below
people scurry to work
forget to look up
marching ants trudge
to soulless jobs
drones on daily grind
a boring bind.

No such limitations for the cat
rising and stretching limbs
warm tiles a luxurious bed
to sleep and dream of
the tramp of footsteps
cacophony of voices
fading     rising     fading     rising
the daily grind
not his bind.

A butterfly flitters past
pauses briefly on a tree branch
trembling wings bathed in sunlight
green eyes blink, a paw twitches
but passersby unaware
of Mother Nature’s show
weary feet tramp and trudge
the daily grind
grips and binds

An elegant stretch, the cat sits
to watch the dying sun
green eyes observe life below
people scurrying home from work
forgetting to look up
they’ve missed the sunshine
the butterfly’s graceful dance
the cat’s sunny somnolence
their daily grind
a soulless bind

© 2016

Exercise One:

Write about a character or an event and use personification. Here are some sentences that could start you off –

  1. The cloud scattered rain throughout the city.
  2. The ancient car groaned into third gear.
  3. The daffodils nodded their yellow heads as we walked up the path.
  4. The wind sang her mournful song through the rafters of the barn
  5. The microwave’s alarm told me it was time to eat my TV dinner
  6. The camcorder observed the whole tragedy
  7. The chocolate cake begged to be eaten
  8. The crockery danced on the shelves when the door slammed

Exercise Two:

Look around the room, or your home, your workplace, your garden, the local park, a cafe, a place you visit regularly… (some of these will be from memory because of COVID-19!)

Think about inanimate objects and other everyday items – what kind of vocabulary do they have?

  • The sturdy, dark brown bookcase in the corner- is it male or female? Cheerful or depressed?
  • Could the corkscrew on the bar be on a diet, have a memory of failure?
  • Is the bargain basement table sneaky or does it feel second best?
  • An antique, leather armchair and an Ikea stool do similar jobs, but do they have different ways of looking at the world
  • How do you feel about computers? Have you been frustrated and yelled at the computer – how did it answer?

  • What stories about clocks do you have? Write about your favourite or least favourite alarm clock – perhaps it is a baby’s cry and not a clock at all!

  • You may have the same bed after a failed marriage but does it feel the same – maybe miss the previous occupant?
  • What stories have you about trees in your garden – removing them, perhaps one fell down and damaged something, perhaps you always got fruit and bottled it, had a tree house… do you talk to the trees and do they answer you?

  • Those Wedgewood plates you inherited – do they have the same thoughts as you – do they feel fragile, overused, useless, precious?

Here are two of my attempts: Heirloom Horror by Mairi neil, flash fiction of 500 words.

storm in a teacup by Mairi Neil, 400 word flash fiction

Exercise Three:

In poetry and prose personify a piece of furniture you know well.

  • Perhaps it has been in the family since you were born. Perhaps you bought it last week.
  • Giving it a name is optional but you MUST give it an attitude!
  • Be inspired to write about current affairs, or a historical event a la Percy Shelley
  • Use alliteration and personification – experiment and make an effort to try something new.
  • Revisit some of your previous work and see if you can improve it by adding personification.
  • Do the seasons have a personality? An attitude? Write a poem or short prose using personification and reveal the season’s viewpoint or perspective.

 

page seventeen

Rebirth
by Mairi Neil

Lying on the beach
waves roll over me,
smoothing
life’s pain.

the warm waves
caress and massage
manipulating
moulding
malleable me

until colder waves
carve and chip,
with each sharp
intake of breath
a new shape emerges

I am reborn

© 2005 Published page seventeen, Issue 2, Celapene Press.

Happy Writing