Do More Than Pop In to The Pop-up Globe

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On Saturday, I experienced a delightful day – a magical memory day to treasure.

A belated birthday treat from my daughters, Anne and MaryJane, planned months ago, came to fruition as we enjoyed a matinee performance of Othello, at the Pop-up Globe Theatre, an exciting addition to Melbourne’s thriving arts scene.

This full-scale working replica of Shakespeare’s Second Globe Theatre started to ‘pop up’ in July in the newly christened Shakespeare Gardens adjacent to the Sydney Myer Music Bowl.

A huge thank you to Victoria’s Andrews Government, a great supporter of art and culture for enticing this fantastic enterprise to Melbourne. It is an outstanding success. The season, which started on September 21 to finish November 12, has been extended to January 12, 2018.

This mirrors the success of its New Zealand origins, when it opened in Auckland in 2016 and celebrated attendances of 100,000, including 20,000 school students.

The second season in Auckland garnered 100,000 attendees too and public calls for it to be a permanent feature. Thank goodness they had already committed to coming to Melbourne!

program pop up theatre

 

The Pop-up Globe Theatre Company Making History

If you buy the program, you can read all about the history of the venture, the original Globe and The Second Globe Theatre, the research involved, the director’s interpretation of the four plays performed (Othello, As You Like It, Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing), profiles of the actors, and details of the production team, including costuming and choreography.

My love affair with Shakespeare began at Croydon High School, where I was fortunate to be taught by Dr Saffin. How a public high school managed to retain a Doctor of Literature and respected writer is a mystery but under his influence, Shakespeare’s plays not only made sense but inspired me to want to write.

It doesn’t take much imagination for me to be back in the classroom in 1970, mesmerised as Dr Saffin acted out scenes from the plays we were studying at the time: Hamlet and The Tempest. He taught me English Expression as well as English literature so I had a double dose of Shakespeare in the classes with Macbeth studied too.

Dr Saffin had a bad stutter and warned students not to sit in the front desks or they’d get sprayed but miraculously when he was ‘in character’ his stutter disappeared.

He not only nurtured my love of Shakespeare but made me sit an exam run by the Melbourne Shakespeare Society at Melbourne University. I can’t remember the actual exam (blocked out no doubt because I always suffered horrible anxiety and exam nerves) but I do remember the announcement of the results and prize-giving.

Mum, who always had a profound faith in my academic ability insisted that the ‘only reason’ I came second was the judge was biased towards boys.

‘I don’t think so, Mum. What makes you say that?’

‘I just know the way the world works.’

My ever-loyal Mum, sounding like an embittered women’s liberationist yet she never read Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch just published that year.

Dr Saffin told me I did well against the mainly private school and elite public school entries but somehow I felt I let both Mum and him down.

However, I loved the prize, a book I’d never have been able to afford and a resource that has proved invaluable over the years for writing and research and my love for Shakespeare has never diminished!

The Play’s The Thing – Shakespeare On Stage A Must

In 1970, I saw Shakespeare’s The Tempest performed at a Melbourne theatre with the cast dressed in black with minimum props and no scenery. We were to concentrate on the words and actions of the actors.

I’ve lost count of the number of versions of Hamlet I’ve seen.  The latest being the broadcast of the National Theatre with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. And of course, ‘that Scottish play’, Macbeth I’ve seen performed, and Much Ado About Nothing set in the 1920s.

When John was alive, we honoured our mutual love of Shakespeare by attending the Bell Shakespeare productions, his favourite being Henry V.

Bell Shakespeare set their version in the WW1 trenches where the St. Crispen’s Day Speech certainly kept its relevance.

Bell set Coriolanus in the time of the rise of Mussolini – again an ideal modern day choice to discuss Shakespeare’s recurring themes of war, power, loyalty and leadership.

The girls were very young when first exposed to Shakespeare but have never forgotten the spectacles and understood the storylines, if not the dialogue. I think that’s why they were so keen to experience the Pop-up Globe.

 

I will wear my heart upon my sleeve For Othello

I’ve seen or studied many of Shakespeare’s plays but Saturday was the first I’d seen Othello on stage and loved the amazing, energetic, and entertaining performance by an outstanding cast.

O beware, my Lord, of jealousy. / It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on.”

Witness Shakespeare’s ultimate psychological thriller in Pop-up Globe’s production of Othello. Take a journey into the diseased mind of the noble Moor as he’s consumed by ‘the green-eyed monster’; jealousy. The twists and turns in this powerful and dark production will have you on the edge of your seat.

An electric current of joy bound the girls and me as we sat enthralled. We laughed, sighed, held our breaths and teetered on the verge of tears to the thrilling performances and interpretation of a storyline showing the terrible consequences of jealousy and the despair malevolent envy fosters.

Director, Ben Naylor has incorporated the background of the original production and subsequent productions in colonial New Zealand to hint at ‘a darker side to the history of this play about otherness in a colonial context. ‘

Naylor explains that Othello was the first play to be written under King James’ patronage so Shakespeare recognised the King’s ‘interests in the manifestations of worldly evil and the operations of the Devil…’

And now: as nationalism and its attendant demons – racism and xenophobia – again insinuate themselves into mainstream political discourse worldwide, and as the choices of individuals and societies continue to be driven by envy and jealousy, the play asks us once more to confront the lies that sound like truth.

Oh, yes!

This is why I love Shakespeare and why he is still studied and always relevant. He writes about the human condition and explores our behaviour and relationships. His plays are timeless and can be transplanted into modern settings, appropriated, and adapted into novels and movies.

… one that loved not wisely but too well

The International Day of the Girl Child celebrated this week brings into focus issues raised by Shakespeare all those centuries ago. The two main female characters: Desdemona and Emilia are powerless against the physical, emotional and financial control their husbands exercise. The women are friends, even although one is the mistress, the other the servant, however, they live by different moral codes.

This production does not shy away from depicting domestic violence or the consequences of drunkenness and other violence. And society’s hypocrisy.

We witness how those in power enable the subjugation of women and the double standards of so many regarding ideas of ‘womanhood’.

 ‘Thou weigh’st thy words before thou givest them breath…’

All of Shakespeare’s plays you read or watch remind you of how much our language and culture owes to this playwright. Some of the words and ideas may not have been his original thought but because of the popularity of his plays the phrases are embedded in our language, adding to the nuances of English.

No wonder many ESL students have difficulty understanding some of our expressions.

I’ve already highlighted some of the quotes from Othello but list some more cultural references. These may have been altered over the centuries but nonetheless, have Shakespearean roots:

jealousy; It is the green-ey’d monster,

…Jealousy is a monster that gives birth to itself.

… Heaven is my judge, I will wear my heart upon my sleeve

my heart is turn’d to stone

Of one that loved not wisely but too well;

… T’is neither here nor there.

To mourn a mischief that is past and gone is the next way to draw new mischief on.

Men in rage strike those that wish them best.

Our bodies are our gardens, to which our wills are gardeners:

...he that filches from me my good name, Robs me of that which not enriches him, And makes me poor indeed…

When devils do the worst sins, they first put on the pretence of goodness and innocence…

To be poor but content is actually to be quite rich. But you can have endless riches and still be as poor as anyone if you are always afraid of losing your riches.” 

Pop-up Globe Better Than Expected

In London recently, I missed going to The Globe – I did but see it passing by – from a ferry on the Thames, so attending the Pop-up Globe a dream come true. In fact, if the attendant manning the merchandise stall is to be believed the Pop-up Globe is more authentic than the one in London. (Read all about it in that valuable program guide I mentioned.)

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The Pop-up Globe is intimate with a variety of seating options and despite my failing hearing, I only missed a few words but none of the meaning or action.

No matter where you sit or stand in the Pop-up Globe theatre you will be no more than 15 metres from the stage. So wherever you choose you’ll be close to the action.

Pop-up Globe is based on staging of the second Globe theatre as much as possible. There are two large structural pillars situated on the stage and because the actors play in 360 degrees, it is likely that no matter where you sit or stand your view may be slightly restricted or you may miss a line or two!

The action on stage moves quickly so no matter where you are situated you might see and hear something completely different from someone on the other side of the stage.

Apparently, A, B, C Reserve tickets are comfortable backed seats. The girls’ budget bought D Reserve tickets, which are a combination of comfortable backed seats and backless wooden benches with cushions.

We had a good view but sat on wooden benches with cushions already showing signs of too many bums on seats, so if you need to sit super comfortably perhaps take your own cushion.

The cheapest tickets are Groundling tickets in a standing only area, where sitting is not permitted for safety reasons. Nor are any bags and these have to be checked into the cloakroom.

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The play goes for two and a half hours with a short interval.

This is around the same length of time that most performances took 400 years ago. We know this because in Romeo and Juliet, the Prologue mentions the ‘two hours traffic of our stage’.

If you decide to be a Groundling you will be close to the action and actors, which may not compensate for having to stand for a long time.

One young man in a blue denim shirt fascinated me as he pressed so close to the stage he could have been welded to it. Immobile, his nose level with the stage floor, he would have heard every intake of breath, felt the vibration of footsteps, and even seen the hairs in the actor’s nose!

However, he moved with lightning speed when Othello stabbed himself and the fake blood spurted skywards and outwards like lava from a volcano. Outside after the play, there were several people with telltale red spots in their hair, on their face and clothes. The price paid for being close to the action.

Groundlings on either side of the path and stairway to the stage experienced a similar spattering and in some cases drenching when Roderigo appeared ‘from the sea’ spluttering and spitting like a whale (a very funny scene).

Roderigo regurgitated the largest amount of water I’ve ever seen anyone hold in their mouth, albeit done with aplomb and excellent timing.

Fortunately, no one in the audience replicated disgruntled tomato throwers from Shakespeare’s time despite Pop-up Globe’s authenticity.

Groundlings are ‘the pits’ for the common folk but there are Royal Rooms on the Pop-up Globe stage. I could see the occupants of these clearly.

Each accommodates up to six guests. Seats can be booked individually, as a romantic room for two or as a private room for a larger group. “All sixteen seats can be booked as a perfect option for entertaining clients or friends.”

Perhaps some corporates will see this as a unique Christmas outing – if they have a large expense account!

Royal Room bookings include a complimentary premium hamper and a
season programme per person. But it’s not cheap to copy Elizabeth or James 1st, the two monarchs most closely associated with Shakespeare. ($304.67 per seat.)

Othello is one of Shakespeare’s greatest psychological thrillers. In a theatre of war, a great general is brought down by the power of his own love and the prejudice of others.

Othello forces us to confront a timeless fear: does the Devil move among us? Racism, jealousy and envy conspire in Shakespeare’s dark tragedy, in this full production inspired by the Jacobean period, performed by a specially-formed international ensemble in spectacular bespoke costumes.

The Pop-up Globe Queen’s Company is Pop-up Globe’s resident mixed company of male and female actors and musicians, working with world experts to bring you the shock of the old: the effect of Shakespeare’s plays performed in the space for which they were written.

 

The stagecraft of this production is magnificent, as are the costumes and the final scenes are awesome. The main character is Othello, but it is Iago, the villain, who if not present in every scene, makes his presence felt.

The themes of love, appearance and reality, jealousy, revenge, prejudice and despair, exposed and explored in the final dramatic scenes.

When Iago’s villainy is revealed and he is ‘strung up’ the whole theatre is shocked. There is a collective holding of breath and I felt the tension from Anne and Mary Jane, and I’m sure all of us prayed the workmanship and health and safety guidelines met expectations.

Iago was carefully pulled up towards a hole in the ceiling, his arms outstretched crucifixion style, not just symbolically, but to ensure the hoist went smoothly. Smoke allowed a mystic disappearance into ‘the heavens’ and when he was ‘resurrected’ in the final scene he was helped out of a trapdoor in the floor as if brought back from ‘hell’!

The wonderfully choreographed dance of all the cast at the end a triumphant celebratory ‘haka -like’ tribute. Regan Taylor is a great Othello incorporating his experience of innovative Maori theatre, Te Ao Maori in his performance.

The actors used all of the space and opportunities to engage the audience – even acknowledging those ‘in the gods’, the privileged Royal Boxes, as well as the groundlings.

scene 5

Shakespeare must be seen and heard to be appreciated. A play on stage, more than the screen, relies on dialogue and how the actors use the stage, props, their bodies and voices.

In Saturday’s performance, there were no weak links and even the ignominious cast members with titles ‘officer’ and ‘soldier’ contributed unforgettable performances as they immersed themselves in the roles.

The range of experience and talent of the actors helps make this production such a success and I can honestly say it’s the best Shakespearean experience I’ve had.

The season has been extended so perhaps if I hint loud enough I might manage a ticket to another play in this marvellous company’s repertoire.  Afterall, Christmas is on the horizon!

globe quote mug

A walk through the Queen Victoria Gardens, lunch at the National Gallery.

Then a fun and successful attempt to negotiate the maze at the House of Mirrors added to my birthday treat.  I would probably still be wandering but the girls got us out in 10 minutes.

On the way home to Anne’s flat for a cuppa and to pick up MaryJane’s car, we walked through the Alma Park.

As we delighted in spring buds, blooming flowers, lush greenery and numerous friendly dogs being walked by their owners, we reflected on the tragedy of gentle, spiritual Desdemona and anguished Othello.

We were glad of the durability of Shakespeare, but more importantly our strong loving bond.

What a perfect day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Magical Evening With Mem – A Real Gem!

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When an invitation from our local federal member, Mark Dreyfus QC appeared in a Facebook newsfeed, I didn’t hesitate and replied straight away. 

It was no ordinary invite from a politician. Not a party political event or publicising an election campaign, but a delightful opportunity to meet and greet and have a Q&A with Australian writer and children’s author, Mem Fox.

Wow! (Said with the expression of a groupie.)

Convenient because it was happening at Doyles Hotel, Mordialloc – and exciting – there are few families in Australia who haven’t heard of Possum Magican iconic picture storybook, which still sells today!

When I congratulated Mark on the event he gave all credit to his electorate officer,  Jacob Chacko who works in his Mordialloc office. Well done, Jacob who also did a great job as the emcee that evening.

 

Few Australian homes would not have one of Mem’s books on a shelf – she’s written over 40, and more than half are international bestsellers. 

For those wishing to write children’s books, the advice on Mem’s website, an excellent resource, but perhaps her best advice delivered that evening was for would-be writers to envisage the target audience sitting on the floor in front of them.

If the children fidget with their shoelaces, stare out the window or start being naughty your story needs editing and revising!

Remember you are writing for children today, not writing a book you read as a child, nor writing a book to be read by adults because they think that’s what children should read!

 

the crowd for Mem Fox
an eager crowd – mainly women but also some men

 

My daughters are 31 and 28 years old now and treasure many of the books from childhood, especially Mem’s. Like so many in the audience (almost 300) I cheerfully queued to have my daughters’ books signed and have a chat.

 

Mem is a writer I admire for her books, but also her views on social justice, evident in her latest picture storybook, I’m Australian Too. A book she wrote to celebrate Australia’s incredible multicultural heritage and which sold out in its first three months (March-May 2017) and has been reprinted.

I love the recommended readership for the book – for readers aged 0-95.

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Ambassador for Literacy

Mem is also ‘an educationalist specialising in literacy,’ and although retired, she was Associate Professor of Literacy Studies at Flinders University, South Australia, where she taught teachers for 24 years. 

She now spends most of her time writing presentations urging parents, teachers, and others to read aloud to children aged between 0-5, and she travels the world doing it. We were lucky to have in her Isaacs on her current tour travelling Australia promoting literacy and the importance of reading.

We should also thank Melinda Shelley of 123Read2Me who is currently collecting children’s books to give to those kids who don’t have them. I think she was the one who invited Mem to visit Victoria.

If you have quality children’s books in good condition please drop them off at The Lions Club Opportunity Shop in Mordialloc Main Street and Melinda will find them a good home.

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In her talk and answers to questions from Mark and the audience, Mem was entertaining (she did study drama) along with giving good advice about writing and teaching literacy.

Although born in Melbourne, Mem grew up in Africa, attended drama school in England, and returned to Australia in 1970, aged 22. Along came marriage and motherhood and attending university as a mature age student in her early thirties.

She studied children’s literature at Flinders University and during that course, she wrote the first draft of her first book: Possum Magic, as an assignment. Mem said she was inspired to write a book about Australia for Australian children because at that time books were either from the USA or UK, or written like those books.

Possum Magic was rejected nine times over five years because it was ‘too Australian’!

It went on to become (and continues to be, to this day) the best-selling children’s book in Australia, with nearly 5 million copies sold. In 2004 its 21st birthday was celebrated with parties and events in thousands of schools and other places around Australia, and a new re-designed edition was launched. The colours of the original film of the illustrations were fading because it had been reprinted so many times. They now look gorgeous again.

Mem Fox

Mem explained the inspiration for some of her other books. There was one she wrote in her head, sitting daily beside her grandson’s incubator when he was born prematurely and struggled to survive. She focused on his perfect fingers and toes and ears. She read to him too and recounting this story she urged mothers to read to children in their womb – it is never too early to read to children.

We laughed when she said she was thrilled her grandson had perfect ears because she had one ear bigger than the other and it juts out.

I loved this anecdote because I have the same affliction. When we chatted afterwards I whispered to her that I shared the imperfection regarding ears and her passion for writing and teaching, just wish I had her talent! We laughed together – and she has a raucous laugh!

Mem confessed she preferred teaching because the writing was a nightmare!

And that I could empathise with too! As do many writers.

dr seuss quote

Her latest book begged to be written because travelling around Australia, she realised the majority of people living here are welcoming and fair-minded yet it is the strident minority of people like Pauline Hanson who seem to dictate the heartless and cruel policies of successive governments against asylum seekers and refugees.

The loud, shrill voices encouraged politicians in our major political parties to act in shameful, illegal ways.  Many people are shocked and say ‘not in our name’ yet because the major parties have similar policies, the human rights abuses continue.

She let Mark Dreyfus know that she was disappointed in the federal ALP policy and he diplomatically asked another question.

The Responsibility of Writers With a Social Conscience

 I happen to have a loud voice myself—I’ve just woken up to the fact—and am now determined to use it, to drown out the others if I can, on behalf of the rest of us.

Mem Fox

 I’m Australian Too, takes Mem back to where she started: her passion for Australia. She hopes it will spark spirited discussions about ‘Australian-ness’, create an awareness of Australian immigration over the centuries, and begin to calm what she says is the appalling rising racism in this country.

There have been amazing positive responses, especially from schools and community centres:

We were so excited to read your book to our wonderfully diverse community of children at the service, who in turn were delighted to finally see and hear their culture represented so beautifully in the book, including the refugees and families seeking asylum, which are often forgotten…

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Mem recounted how she had personal experience of feeling ‘the other’ when she lived in Africa (Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe) where the authorities pulled her out of a local school because she was white and forced her to attend a European school, where she was bullied and laughed at for ‘speaking like an African’.

Fast forward to February this year (2017)  when she attended a conference in America a few weeks after Donald Trump was inaugurated as President and was challenged by Border Control Officers

I was interrogated as if I were some kind of prisoner, in a holding room, in full public view and hearing of everyone in the room—and was kept standing throughout, imagine because I was earning an honorarium from the conference. The Border Control patrol officer said I was ‘working’ and had come in on the wrong visa. He was wrong, as it turned out. I was right. I knew I was right. It was my 117th visit to the USA, after all.

I am ageing and white, innocent and educated, and I speak English fluently. Imagine what happened to the others in the room, including an old Iranian woman in a mauve cardigan, in her 80s, in a wheelchair. I heard and observed everything. We all did…

… the irony of my book being about welcoming immigrants …

… my story has snowballed to include the airing of stories of the many others who have suffered similarly disgraceful treatment by immigration officers makes me proud, even though my telling of the story was neither brave nor purposeful, simply an accident of timing. The focus is where it should be, but the question remains: if this can happen to me as an ageing, educated, articulate, white English speaker, what on earth happens to those who aren’t like me?

What indeed?

Writing For Children Involves Lots of Reading – Especially Other Writers!

students learning by the River Don, Inverurie, Aberdeen

Listening to Mem talk about her teaching, her understanding of children and the deep love and interaction she has with her daughter and grandson was delightful and insightful.

Write from the compost of your own life, feelings, experiences, hopes, joys, disappointments, and so on. If you do that, the reader will be able to connect with your story because it will be based on the authenticity of universal understandings.

She talked about her favourite writers and the importance of learning the craft of writing by appreciating the talent of other writers.

Currently, she was reading Elizabeth Harrower’s novels reprinted by Text Publishing. “Marvellous stories, wonderful writing … check her out…’

She reads a lot of books while travelling around Australia – real books, not digital. If going overseas for a length of time then she’ll have her Kindle because it is convenient and light, but always print books are the first preference.

As an educator, she begged young mums not to put a screen in front of young children or encourage reading on an iPad. The visceral experience of reading a print book with a young child can never be replicated by swiping a screen!

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All evening Mem stayed on message: read, read, read – widely and carefully – but don’t forget to support Australian writers and tell modern Australia’s stories. Read to learn as many different ways of using language as possible. (She praised Indian writers who in her opinion, wrote the most grammatically correct English today!)

Write, write, write but know your audience, if writing for children make sure you have the rhythm right, not necessarily to rhyme, but the perfect placement of syllables in a sentence or in verse.

And remember you are telling a story that children can identify with – a little boy who was born in Lebanon shouted for joy when he heard Mem mention “his” birth country in I’m Australian Too.

The free evening was billed as 6.30pm (for 7.00pm start) – 8.30pm. It was closer to 10.00pm when I walked home. I met up with several people I knew from being a school mum (primary and secondary school) and made new acquaintances standing in line waiting to talk with a sociable and chatty Mem who was more than generous with her time.

She signed books yet did not sell one, or have any to sell – this was not a marketing exercise or sales pitch, yet I’m sure she could have sold a box of books to the adoring crowd!

The vibrant atmosphere abuzz with joy, the sharing of stories of when we first read Possum Magic, what other books are favourites, and how thrilling to meet the author in person and have books rather than sport lauded as an Aussie success story.

I left Doyles clutching my signed treasures, satisfied and smiling and laughed aloud because someone had added sunglasses to the horse statue out the front decorated for the up and coming Spring Carnival…

horse outside Doyles

I wonder what stories he/she can tell.

 

Seeking Inner Peace in Outer Mongolia

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I freely admit to not being in harmony with my spirit for a long time.

I find Maya Angelou inspiring but whether experiencing delayed and complicated grief or just burn-out, a growing melancholy is difficult to shake off and so I am an expert in masking how I feel. Last year, the pretence life was okay became harder to mask.

I felt broken; fatigued and shattered.

How to fix broken me a difficult conundrum, but not new.

All my life I’ve been accused of over-thinking, being too sensitive, too serious, caring too much. Even primary school teachers wrote “highly strung” in reports when personality assessments sat beside grades.

Weary, disillusioned and disappointed in myself I wondered is it just coming to terms with ageing, or is existing rather than living going to be the norm?

Were the fast approaching ‘twilight years’ affecting me as they did my father who often recited the cynic’s song:

Twas always thus since childhood’s hour, I’ve seen my fondest hopes decay, I never loved a bird nor flower, than the darned thing died or flew away!”

The Physical and Metaphysical

There were physical aspects to how broken I felt.

I visited my oncologist because I wanted to come off Tamoxifen. Her reaction to my complaints about joint pain, rashes, and palpitations, “it’s not just cancer, you’ve never got over losing John…” and while writing a script for anti-depressants,  “I’ll give you these but I know you probably won’t take them…”

She was right about the pills – I didn’t fill the prescription, particularly after researching the possible side effects, mirroring some of the symptoms, which motivated me to make the appointment!

Symptoms I believed from Tamoxifen, the drug keeping my breast cancer under control.

She was also right about my grief for husband John, who I loved passionately and miss every day, but conflating that with the visceral effects of Tamoxifen didn’t help my anxiety.

When I left the specialist’s rooms that day, instead of catching the bus, I walked for an hour, my mind in overdrive and future uncertain.

Decisions to make.

To ignore the prescription for anti-depressants and also come off Tamoxifen. (And when the most worrying physical symptoms disappeared, I was vindicated!)

But what to do about the cloud of depression shadowing me most of my life and now threatening thunderstorm proportions?

Throwing myself into work whether paid or volunteer often an effective distraction. I’ve always been a great believer in focusing and helping others as a way of minimising personal problems.

It sometimes works, but deep down distraction is the right word. Also, it’s a solution that’s often temporary.

Peter Sarstedt in his hit song of the ’60s sang:

But where do you go to my lovely
When you’re alone in your bed
Tell me the thoughts that surround you
I want to look inside your head

No one would want to look inside my head – not even me! Where is the off button?!

The 24hour news cycle and social media with its emphasis on tragedies take a toll on heart and soul too. There are always external factors as well as internal factors feeding melancholia and as a person interested in politics and social justice I know the constant barrage has made it worse.

Going Travelling instead of Going to Pieces

Active solution?

By planning a holiday to places on my bucket list, I hoped travelling and a rest from the everyday would give time to think and heal.

I sent an email to Flower Travel, Trans Siberian journey specialists, plus emails to friends and relatives overseas in the UK, a place not visited in 20 years. I decided to travel where I’d never been and tour Orkney and Shetland.

“The discipline of writing something down is the first step toward making it happen.”

Lee Iacocca

I plundered superannuation and took a term off from teaching…

As a solo traveller, there would be plenty of time for soul-searching, especially visiting Mongolia and Siberia, places as different from my lifestyle as the proverbial ‘chalk and cheese’!

Day Two In Mongolia

I’m scheduled to stay in a traditional ger at Buuviet Ger Camp, Terelj National Park, 65 kilometres northeast of Ulaanbaatar.

The ideal opportunity, at the beginning of my travels, to start that soul searching and a walk at dusk provides time to be quiet and still.

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Dusk in the Ger Camp

“The National Park Gorkhi-Terelj includes the southern Khentil mountain range. Terelj is one of the protected areas most frequently visited. It offers naturally beautiful scenery, interesting rock formations and is covered by forests, wetlands and alpine tundra…”

entrance to campsign to camp

The Buuviet Ger Camp is open all year round and the information listed facilities to include:  220 V electricity, deep well artesian water, 70 gers with guest beds for overnight stay, 16-bed winter houses, ger restaurant with seating for 60 and information ger with Mongolian national games, modern bar in a ger, souvenir shop, fully equipped restrooms (summer only) and an outside BBQ and bar – not the isolated wilderness some may think!

However, I’m not the first and won’t be the last traveller to discover a discrepancy in what is advertised and reality, but I didn’t mind. In fact, the experience probably more authentic because of it. I wasn’t looking for “Glamping” as one travel site described: 

Go glamping

Sleeping in a rough-and-ready Mongolian ger is a quintessential grassland experience, but a growing number of tour operators are establishing sustainable, nomad-run ger camps that target the posh adventurer with innovative luxuries. Nomadic Journeys operates ger camps at pristine wilderness sites that feature heated eco-showers, hand-painted beds with thick yak’s wool blankets, and even a sauna ger. For the truly adventurous, they’ll open up an airstrip and fly people into the great Mongolian void – 365 degrees of pristine emptiness, and it’s all yours.

The spacious and comfortable ger was cosy and I eventually settled to sleep… although that was a long time coming…

Staring at the shadows from the starlight shining through the roof, I relived the minutiae of the day, tortured myself with past imperfect scenarios, tried to imagine perfect scenarios…

… the wee hours never easy for what my mother called ‘an overactive brain‘. Nighttime rarely a relief from the busyness of the day.

The silence in the ger “deafening’! There are none of the sounds I’m used to – machinery, cars, trains, footsteps on pavements, crickets, pigeons cooing, sirens, dogs barking….

At times the wind whistles through the roof but I could be the only person on earth although the faint buzz of security cameras and an outside light just discernible. Once I heard distant barking – dogs warning of wolves?

But there was no insect noises or hum of an electricity generator. The ger cocoon the perfect place for ‘endless musings and ramblings, recriminations and replayed conversations.’

The writing ‘mojo’ I hoped to rekindle struggled to appear, and energy absent, but regrets, remorse, resentment, recriminations, fears, fantasies, grief and even giggles took their turn before I gradually dropped off to sleep!

When we arrived at the camp, snow still lay on the ground. The weather of the last few days just beginning to allow for maintenance and preparation for the spring and summer tourist season.

Being the only guest, I understood why the electricity (stored in batteries) was not switched on, and the ‘fully equipped restrooms” still shrouded and protected from winter.

It was pleasing to see signs explaining efforts to marry environmental awareness with tourism.

A love of travel motivates me, but I readily admit it’s a privilege and carry first world guilt about my environmental footprint.

Cultivating an attitude of neutrality, I consider most people to have good intentions, are not out to be bad or destructive.  The majority are kind and helpful and so I do my best to be trusting, suppress suspicion and hesitation, and extend friendship.

There are myriad cultural and ethnic stereotypes promoted in movies, comedy routines, novels, and plays. Lazy writers thrive on stereotypes and cliches and the success of soap operas and pulp fiction show there is a market. But I hope to absorb and capture the vibrant and fascinating Mongolia that has stunned me, albeit with only two days of experience.

I prefer to take people as I find them and form opinions based on personal experience and observation.

A large sign explained Buuviet Camp’s mission to be an “eco-camp”:

Idopt a tree

Buuveit camp of Tsolmon Travel LLC was nominated and certified as the first “Eco Camp” today we are working to bring you close to nature by developing beautiful garden at our camp.

Goal:

  • save and preserve the endangered species of plants, trees and shrubbery
  • increase the number by replanting
  • provide botanical education

Our garden is dedicated to the collection, cultivation and display of wide range of plants from Gorkhi Terelj National park and Khan Khentii Protected Area.

Thousand Trees Every YEAR
Please join our effort to give back to the nature by planting trees and flowers any help would be appreciated
For more info please ask the camp manager.

I saw the area mapped out for a vegetable and fruit garden, still empty of growth because of winter.  However, Jemina, my host excited at seeing a tiny shoot of green and bent down to examine it.  New growth means his horses and cattle will have more feed. 

Traditionally, Mongolian nomads raise five species of livestock known as the five muzzles or snouts: horses, cows or yaks, sheep, goats, and camels. Reindeer are raised by the Tsaatan people who live in the northwest areas around the lake Khovsgol bordering Russian Siberia. 

A life of wrestling with the vagaries of the seasons evident on Jemina’s face, skin, and wiry body. This vast almost limitless space, a tough place in winter.

first sign pf spring

I saw living proof that Mongolia is one of the least densely populated countries on earth when standing in the centre of camp:

  • no sight or sound of another person,
  • a panorama of unfolding pastures, dusty paddocks,
  • and hilly peaks draped with snow.

A wonderful gift to experience, I’m in awe at this wilderness and appreciate the lifestyle enjoyed in Mordialloc.

Ada had been worried and apologetic about some facilities being closed. But why would I mind using the squat toilet on the edge of the site, or top and tailing at the wash basin rigged to be fed by a bucket of water?

I thought of an old Monty Python skit ( Four Yorkshiremen) – these facilities luxury indeed compared to how some people have to live, without shelter, clean water or decent food!

Because of the nomadic lifestyle and the climate, Mongolians have always played a variety of games and are skilful horse riders.  I saw where outdoor games could be played but had to make do reading about the cultural heritage developed over many centuries to suit nomadic life.

Likewise, the restaurant and other communal buildings, BBQ and bar remained closed for my one night, but I could imagine the delight of tourists in peak season.

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After a wander around and peeking in windows, I’m sure would-be guests during peak tourist season could consider it ‘glamping’!

Looking at my notebook, I read “has it only been a day since I flew into Mongolia?”

“I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.”

Carl Sagan

An Awakening of the Land – and Me…
Mairi Neil

From the plane, I spy brown, dry earth
and undulating hills
peaks dotted with snow
the iced mountains and streaked steppes
like shattered shards of glass
nomadic houses – gers
could be iced buns or polka dots
instead of circles of civilisation
and isolation

The plane manoeuvres around mountains
and patchwork dark green shadows
forest in a land famous for no trees
Thick cloud envelops
accompanied by an ominous grunt…
the landing gear drops
we hover over mountains
panda seat display announces
two degrees on the ground

river tributaries appear
flowing free
or perhaps just melting snow
as isolated gers multiply
blend to suburbs of Ulaanbaatar…

A long straight highway glimpsed
high-rise buildings glint in sunlight
seat upright, seat belt fastened
alert and nervous
I anticipate the adventure ahead…

 

me with hosts at ger camp
Jemina and daughter Aruna run the Buuviet Ger Camp

Notes By Candlelight…1

Tonight I’m in a ger – the only guest in the village because winter is not quite over. Aruna and her father Jemina run the place. Although only 22 years old, Aruna is extremely competent. She had to step up when her mother died 6 years ago. Her father is 59. An older brother and sister have moved away with their own families.

Aruna told me she has a pony, also books and television as relaxation and entertainment. She writes in her journal. Like young people everywhere she has a mobile phone and loves the Internet.

Our conversations stilted and difficult because of the language barrier. How I wished we could communicate better – I’d love to know what she reads and writes… and of her dreams for the future.

I can imagine how busy it will be in the summer – a lot of work for a young woman. I feel guilty at a fleeting moment of regret that the new washing and toilet facilities are not operational. No luxury hotel comforts for me. Not even electricity in the ger because it’s not worth connecting the battery for just one guest.

On the plus side, I’m experiencing a more traditional lifestyle as I read by candlelight, use the squat toilet, and sponge myself down at the tiny sink with water from a bucket!

I told Heidi at Flower Travel I wasn’t “precious” so in modern day vernacular I’m “sucking it up”!

When we migrated to Australia in 1962, the house we rented for four years had no septic tank or sewer. We trekked down to the bottom of the backyard day or night and used the ridiculously named “dry toilet” or dunny in Aussie vernacular. (My father and brothers often peeing in the bushes or ‘by the lemon tree’!)

The pan emptied each week by the “night man,” who actually came during the day. And what a grump he was too, but with such a “shit” job, no wonder!

My Aussie Childhood
Mairi Neil

I grew up at Croydon
when the bush was thick around,
milk and bread delivered
to a tuneful clip-clop sound

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

Streets were mainly dirt tracks,
collection of potholes and clay,
most people walked or cycled
and strangers said, ‘G’day!’

Our weatherboard house peeled
paint – the tin roof leaked too,
verandahs sagged under honeysuckle,
rooms added as the family grew.

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

Electricity only brightened inside,
so torch or candle had to suffice,
night noises from shadows in bushes,
and the smelly dunny – not nice!

The path to the toilet lined with trees
growing tall to seek the sun
but in the scary, dark cloak of night
branches became arms from which to run.

But during the day, our block was heaven
definitely a children’s Adventureland
blue tongues, geckos, tadpoles, and frogs
all shared my world so grand.

A snake was the greatest danger
or a bull ant bite on the toe,
a rule carefree wonderful time –
my rose-coloured glasses show!

Notes By Candlelight…2

More often than not it was outside squat toilets when I visited communes and factories and some tourist attractions in China in 1979 – the unforgettable smell of human waste reminiscent of the latrines we dug at girl guide camps.

That ‘farmyard’ smell triggers many memories just as staring at the flickering candle flame does!

Sipping a cup of Nerada tea I’ve brought from Australia I wonder how many others have sat in this ger?

The teabags and a tube of Vegemite brought along as emergency rations. A cup of tea does wonders and Vegemite on bread or cracker biscuits as good as a meal!

Deep breaths and I imagine the eucalypts in the garden at Mordialloc, the sweet smell of Mary Jane’s favourite incense that permeates the hall, the smoothness of Aurora’s fur as she cuddles me each night.

Will this trip invigorate me or just emphasise my aloneness – or make me lonely ?

A big drawback of solo travel – not having someone to talk over the day’s experiences – the joys, upsets… the wonder.

My first published poem in the form of a bookmark resulted from a writing workshop where the teacher lit a candle in the centre of the table and told us to pause, reflect and write…

is it just tiredness or feeling overwhelmed that is blocking inspiration tonight?

There were several hours to walk and explore the camp and beyond. I discovered a prayer site of shaman ritual. Shamanism deeply rooted in nomadic Mongolia and lives happily with Buddhism. You often see the circles and cairns where rituals have taken or will take place and memorial stupas.

People ask to be healed, for good crops or to do well in an exam or job interview – many reasons to thank the gods – and ask for guidance from ancestors.

Buddhism and Shamanism coexist in Mongolia and are often interconnected. 

Stalin’s purges led to religious orders being decimated. At the time 25% of the male population were Buddhist priests so you can see why he considered them a threat and you can also understand why people clung to shamanism. 

In the solitude, I felt relaxed, daylight drifted away as a veil of serenity fell.  I discovered a spiritual sanctuary amidst ancient stones. I could be sitting in an empty church – sitting quietly in contemplation without sermons or fuss.

The rocks materialising into shapes –  eyes, faces, figures – as if ancient folk still live.

Three monks in their cowls with heads bent in prayer, a mother, and her child, a grandparent squatting with a child leaning on his shoulder; animals too – crouching, lying, poised and cowed.

Who comes here? Is the discarded bottle Jemina’s? Is this where he comes to grieve? Or do people gather for spiritual salvation? 

Secret cavities leading to where? Did Mankind begin here? Do ancient souls still hover?

I see brown open landscape, miles of emptiness
I hear the cry of a crow – a kite circles
I smell aromatic herbs and woodsmoke
I taste the tang of unfamiliar meat sauces from dinner
I touch textured rock scarred by time and weather

I imagine the endless universe… the circle of life

ger camp from hill.jpg

There are only two faces to existence – birth and death –
and life survives them both, just so sunrise and sunset
are not essentially different:
it all depends on whether one is facing east or west.

Joy Mills, Release into Light

Nature called…

The toilet was far enough away to be disconcerting in the dark even although I had a torch.

There were holes and uneven ground caused by the marmots coming out of hibernation and despite knowing I was the only one booked into the camp, a walk across open land amongst shadows and the silhouettes of buildings, conjured the fearful (although unfounded) sensation that people were watching, perhaps even wishing me harm! 

Imagination a curse at times and never more so in a strange place in the dark.

No wonder I took Ada’s suggestion and snuck behind the tent and peed – it was about 3 or 4 am, absolutely freezing, the only sound my stream of urine scalding and steaming tufts of dead grass and melting thick frost.

Of course, I did have a middle-class moment – what if Jemina was up and about? But that was fleeting and made me smile at my own ridiculous thoughts.

What about ticks?

Ada told me a story about her friend being bitten on the head and contracting Lyme Disease. It was tick season and according to Ada, they love the wind and your hair, but will also go up your leg.  I dutifully wore hat, scarf, and boots when outside.

Fear made me check the bedclothes and the wheels of my luggage – just in case!  When a fly got through the door with me, I watched where it flew as if an enemy ready to attack. What a relief to see it leave via the circular gap in the roof dome. 

No windows in the ger but starlight, moonlight, sunlight, first light, all through the hole in the roof for the chimney.

And what about wolves? The wolf pelt in the corner of the office a stark reminder they exist.

wolf pelt

Jemina crept into the ger at midnight trying not to wake me, his torch flickering as he fed the fire with coal. He must have watched for smoke or lack of – and his timing spot on. (Ada had warned me Jemina would need to stoke the fire when we had an explanatory tour of the place before she returned to the city.)

This is bizarre, I thought as I watched his silhouette from the comfort of the bed. What will the girls think when I tell them I agreed that a man who couldn’t communicate with me, could come into my unlocked bedroom in the middle of the night, albeit to stoke the fire. (Another middle-class, western moment?)

The torchlight bright and blinding and Jemina’s face masked with a scarf against the bitter cold as he concentrated on his duties. Hunkering in front of the fire, fiddling with fuel to encourage flames, poking and rearranging with expertise. The wood stirred, flared and crackled to life.

There’s a talent to lighting a fire and heating a stove. Mum had it. So did Dad, although no surprise there because he was a fireman and later steam train driver. Not much Dad didn’t know about fires. Maybe he taught Mum, but since she was brought up on a farm in Northern Ireland where creating heat for cooking an important element in the skillset for country living, perhaps their expertise mutual.

In the modern world, push-button electric, gas or oil heaters ensure generations have no idea how to make or regulate a wood or coal fire.

  • Before John and I renovated our home in Mordialloc, the only hot water came from a wood-burning Raeburn stove. Every weekend John sat for hours in the shed chopping enough kindling for me to use during the week. When Anne came along, it was easier to boil kettles for her baby baths. I recall the joy of instant hot water when a gas hot water service installed.
  • I  remember my parents spreading a newspaper over the fireplace in Scotland to block out air (except for what came down the chimney or ‘lum’ as we called it) until kindling caught. I can see and smell sandalwood tapers used to light the fire – a present from a childless aunt who could afford to travel to exotic places.
  • Images of the coal man surface – heaving and emptying a large hessian bag full of coal into a bunker next to the kitchen. The smell of lanolin, the pink barrier cream Mum massaged into her hands for protection before she handled the coal, and set the fire.

As I skipped down memory lane, Jemina gave the fire his complete attention, but when he realised I was awake, he mimed that he’d return at 2.00am.

Earlier in the evening, the inside of the ger became unpleasantly hot – the coal and wood heater did too good a job in the well-insulated, enclosed space so I mimed to Jemina not to bother returning; I’d be warm enough.

He nodded, and before leaving placed a bucket near my bed.  I assumed it was to pee in if needed.

Jemina crab-walked to the door and braved the cold. I hoped, he understood I didn’t want to be disturbed at 2.00 am. The door of the ger tiny, and crouching definitely the best way to get in and out or earn a bump on the head like me when I forgot to duck coming back in after my peeing expedition!

The fire nearly out so I rekindled the flames and added more wood. I wonder if Jemina is watching for smoke from his ger…

A traditional yurt (from the Turkic languages) or ger (Mongolian) is a portable, round tent covered with skins or felt and used as a dwelling by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia.

Traditional gers consist of an expanding wooden circular frame carrying a felt cover. The felt is made from the wool of sheep, goat or yak and the timber, to make the external structure, is obtained by trade because of the absence of suitable trees on the steppes.

Gers traditionally did not have solid doors. These fitted as camps have grown and the people don’t move as often. Traditional doors were heavy carpets or appliquéd quilts.

ger door

A Visit With A Nomadic Family

Earlier in the day, there was a quick stop with a traditional nomadic family: Mum, her son, and daughter-in-law, plus two kids of 6 and 7. A brother was visiting with his two children and another relative and her children. 

The place packed. Everyone, apart from our hostess, sitting along one side of the room while Ada, Bemba and myself, sit on the other.

A washing machine is churning because it is Sunday, the day they wash their clothes. In between entertaining us, the mother hassles the children for dirty clothes – well I assume that’s what she is saying as they search under chairs and behind boxes and produce items of clothing. The domestic tasks of parenting and managing a household universal – no translation needed!

It’s ingenious the way the ger is built, to be collapsed and packed up at least four times a year. Sometimes they only move 20-25 kilometres, other times 50 – 100 kilometres, depending on where the family’s cattle and horses graze.

This family has horses and display medals they’ve won at Naadam, the great summer festival in July.

They are Buddhist and a shrine sits next to a giant flat-screen TV, the children and some adults engrossed watching Shaun The Sheep!

A traditional musical instrument with horse handle proudly displayed, although no one plays. It sits beside a traditional saddle and ancient costume of hat and whip. They are important symbols to show pride in Mongolian culture and heritage and have been passed down through the family.

musical instrument horse handle

The various ‘sides’ of the ger are designated: woman’s area – kitchen gear (what a surprise!), a symbolic or ornamental area, sleeping area, bathing and washing area.

Gers may look the same from the outside but like our homes are different inside – this one elaborate and heavily furnished. Bright carpets insulate the walls as well as woven hangings.

As an honoured guest, I’m given milky tea swirled in a large steel basin. Milk drained – I have no idea if it was from a horse, yak, cow, goat or sheep. They use whatever is available and make milk, cream, butter, cheese, and yoghurt.

 sweet tea in ger

I ate little round shaped bites like doughnuts, the other plate is dried yoghurt, tasty but so hard you need strong teeth. A sweet/salty butter treat. Mixing salt and sugar common here. The children suck on slices of dried butter as if icy poles.

The tea an acquired taste – sweet – and leaving an aftertaste. Since teenage, I’ve preferred unsweetened black tea and because Ada knew what to expect she asked the hostess to pour only half a cup for me. 

Not wanting to offend, I drink the tea and taste everything offered. Taking food with an acquired taste, not something I cheerfully volunteer for. I’m not an adventurous eater and rarely eat out, rather I eat to live, not live to eat and never watch cooking shows currently popular on television.

There were plenty of smiles and friendly looks and my visit is an income stream for the family, especially in winter when there are not a lot of alternatives.

When they settle in an area like the National Park there is a government school closer to town and the children board there. When I visited, it was the week of school holidays a time when lots of families visit each other. (Not that different from us really.)

To the Mongols, the family unit is everything.

Having to communicate through Ada limiting and because it was a special and busy family day, I felt like an intruder and didn’t want to subject our hostess with twenty questions.

The children too interested in the television to care about visitors, but one woman (family, neighbour?) never took her eyes off me for the half hour or so of our visit. Her intense stare disconcerting and when we left, I could hear daughter, Mary Jane’s voice, “Well, that was awkward!

On reflection, despite the generous hospitality, it was indeed! Perhaps a group visiting makes the dynamics different or maybe I just wasn’t prepared for all the distractions under one roof – this is where having a separate room for guests may have advantages.

Getting to know someone and being invited to their home different to this organised visit. I remember experiencing the same embarrassed reaction after a visit to a commune in China. It just seemed a discourteous intrusion – maybe if it had been a longer visit, more relaxed and we could communicate better I wouldn’t feel so bad.

However, in the morning, all negative feelings disappeared as I lay in bed trying to identify sounds –

Dawn

‘Peeho, peeho’ the call of a bird?
Persistent and guttural like a pigeon but not ‘coo coo’
Silence after 30 seconds.
A soft whish, swish – flapping?
A peek outside –
an eagle or kite swooping, catching breakfast
an unlucky marmot fails to escape
a magical Mongolian moment I won’t forget!

Despite a disturbed night and strange bed, I feel relaxed… a step towards serenity and inner peace?

Wistful Wandering and Poetic Pondering – Words Wile The Time Away.

Cairns August 2017.jpeg

Travelling to and from work by train is often my writing time or time to pause, observe and reflect on life.

My notebook full of ideas scrawled as one line reminders or thoughts detailed in partial stories or poems (some may say doggerel).

I write down ideas for prompts for the class – like examining our hands – physically, emotionally, and historically.

Most people will be surprised how many stories they can write about their own hands (or the hands of family or friends). Hands change as you age and activities or abilities can increase or decrease.

Hands
Mairi Neil 2017

These hands fumble now
where they once achieved with ease
buttons now boulders,
zips an effort,
Velcro fasteners? Oh, yes, please!

What are those raised veins saying –
the lumpy knuckles too
wedding ring too tight, abandoned
more than the veins are blue.

In the past, skin smooth and soft
and these hands were strong
a past of music, craft, and toddlers
weakness didn’t belong…

These hands feeble now
where once they achieved with ease
piano, guitar, sewing, knitting…
house renovations a breeze

Scarred from work and accidents
sun damaged and skin dry
weakened grip and suspect skill
they’ve earned a rest, I sigh.

But wait, these hands still toil
a means to feed my passion
pens replaced with keypad
writing never out of fashion.

These trusted hands a part of me
what stories they can tell
Ignoring arthritic pain and age
I’ll write a memoir to sell!

Mairi-Neil-2-Mums-large-print-bible.jpg

I’ve written about my mother’s hands for the Women’s Memoir website, USA and took a photograph of her holding a large print Bible because her Christian faith sustained her throughout her life especially in times of grief.

When my Dad was dying, I sat by his bedside holding his hands and reflecting on all the jobs he’d done since entering the workforce, but particularly those taken to improve our lives when we migrated to Australia from Scotland.

Inspiration and Triggers Everywhere

I’m interested in politics, current affairs, and world events. In this era of 24-hour news cycle and social media, it’s difficult to switch off. 

Some days worse than others, some topics too hard to ignore – especially regarding Donald Trump, who so often dominates the headlines.

trumpUAe

That Wall To be Built
Mairi Neil 2017

Humpty Trumpfy wanted a wall
keep Mexicans out, his rallying call
all the white supremacists and the KKK
crawled from under their rocks to have a say.

The Grand ol’ Master, David Duke
his supporters parading as men
marched into Charlottesville one day
but were chased back out again.

Humpty Trumpfy got a bigly shock
even supporters did their block
appalled to see racist rhetoric at work
and their POTUS such a dumb jerk

Humpty Trumpfy wants adulation
each media mention a celebration
his leadership skills account for naught
allegiances intimidated or they’re bought

Humpty Trumpfy will have a great fall
decent people will dismantle the wall
the empty slogans  filling empty heads
disappear from our screens like The Walking Dead

 

Pigeon 2 Bentleigh Station.jpg
This pigeon poised and alert at Bentleigh Station

We take things for granted on a daily basis, always with the assumption that whenever we need something, it will be there. Sometimes we don’t notice small changes, only the dramatic ones.

The number of apartments, townhouses, and units being built has changed the demographics of Mordialloc where I’ve lived for 33 years.

One of the many Real Estate Agents who rings regularly trying to convince me to sell up said there has been a 60% increase in young couples and families buying into the area. They have moved here because of the charm of Mordialloc’s seaside village atmosphere – ironically the removal of stand alone houses and the increased density of development has put that charm under threat!

C’est la vie…

My negative feelings about the “over” development of Mordialloc remind me of a song by Joni Mitchell, one of my favourite artists:

Big Yellow Taxi

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
A dollar and a half to see ’em
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And they put up a parking lot

Hey farmer farmer
Put away that D.D.T. now
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees
Please
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Late last night
I heard the screen door slam
And a big yellow taxi
Took away my old man
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Songwriters: MITCHELL, JONI
Big Yellow Taxi lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Crazy Crow Music / Siquomb Music Publishing

tiger mural mordi station.jpg
mural near Mordi Station

When I returned recently from travelling overseas, I noticed a new mural on a wall in the carpark behind the dentist I visit in Main Street Mordialloc. I mentioned the colourful art work to my daughter,

“When did that go up?”

“Not, sure.”

“What was there before?”

“I think it was cartoon characters of the 90s,” MaryJane said, but neither of us really sure, yet we walk along the path to the railway station almost daily!

Maybe we’ll remember this artwork if it changes… or maybe not. Taking things and people for granted, a common failure too many of us have and the saying, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,’ sadly true.

Live In The Moment Good Advice Too

 

download
C. × crocosmiiflora hybrid an invasive introduced species in Australia

Thankfully, I enjoy my job teaching creative writing because like the train travel, I have the opportunity to write. Whatever topic I plan for my students, I set myself.

On Tuesday afternoon at Godfrey Street, Bentleigh last week, a student Lena suddenly pointed out the window. We turned to watch a beautiful Noisy Miner land on a clump of Crocosmia.

noisy minor 2

The lesson reminded students to think about the power of metaphor and simile to improve their writing, particularly poetry.

I worked on a poem started on the train and then added part two, attempting to incorporate the lesson using the wonderful inspiration provided by our visitor.

Poetry in motion and fun too!

A Tuesday in August
Mairi Neil 2017

Morning

A spring-like day
warm sun is out
after hiding for awhile
she’s come out to play
to make us laugh and smile.

A new mural at Mordi Station
catches the eyes of passersby
painted while I’ve been away
A tiger feisty and bright
no room for blues today.

I load some Myki Money
before the train arrives
slip coins into the slot
train’s on time, a win
a happy day my lot!

It is indeed a wonderful world
dear Satchmo got it right
when a warm sun shines
the uplifting joy spreads
to banish worry lines.

Redolent roses perfume paths
camellias bud and delight
enjoy each moment of warmth
‘cos too soon, it will be night.

Afternoon

With a swoop, you arrive
an empty vessel needing a refill
balancing on trembling bells

to sup on nectar deliciously sweet
a  sight not to be missed
a pleasant distraction and inspiration

A Noisy Miner unusually silent
obedient child obeying the Golden Rule –
don’t speak with your mouth full!

Sucking goodness from crocosmia
a lubrication for daily performances
through welcome orange straws

an opera singer turned acrobat
pausing for tasty lunch on the wing
unaware of the Paparazzi nearby.

Wikipedia has information about both the invasive plant and the bird but please see comment below from friend and mentor in all things Aussie Bush to set the record straight in:

Crocosmias are grown worldwide, and more than 400 cultivars have been produced. Some hybrids have become invasive species, especially C. × crocosmiiflora hybrids, which are invasive in the UK, New Zealand, the American Pacific Northwest, and probably elsewhere.

The Noisy Miner feeds on nectar, fruit and insects. In keeping with its highly social nature, the Noisy Miner usually feeds in large groups.

Perhaps there’s a story behind our lone (lonely?) bird – I’ll leave that for you to compose!

Happy writing –

Chinggis Khaan – A Fascinating Leader Loved and Revered

chinggis khaan statue again copy.jpeg

Day Two – Chinggis Khaan Equestrian Statue and Museum Complex

The drive to the outskirts of the city and beyond revealed the vastness of the country and scenes confirming western assumptions. Miles of dusty, brown and sandy soil, hills and distant mountains bare of greenery after winter snows.

There were horses, goats, sheep, yaks and cattle grazing – all chewing pasture I couldn’t see from the car! Individual gers and clusters in camps dotted the landscape – at last, the something different I’d hoped for.

bird of prey copy.jpeg

Chinggis Khaan a revered leader in the past and today. He and his sons ruled during the ‘Great Khan’ period in 13 and 14 centuries. The 40-metre statue built to honour his achievements, not only for Mongolia but his extensive empire, which influenced half of the known world. 

The visitor complex is 10 metres tall with 36 columns representing the 36 Khans from Chinggis to Ligdan Khaan and designed by sculptor D Erdenebileg and architect J Enkhjargal, it was erected in 2008.

It is the world’s tallest equestrian statue and has the certificate to prove it!

tallest equestrian statue chinggis kahn

On horseback, Chinggis Khaan faces east towards his birthplace, holding the golden whip, which according to legend he found on the bank of the Tuul River at Tsonjin Boldog, the site of the monument. It is 54 kilometres east of Ulaanbaatar and a must-see for anyone visiting Mongolia.

Chinggis Khaan or who we, in the West, refer to as Ghengis Khan was an impressive leader and achiever. I had no idea the Mongolian Empire extended to almost half the world. So many ethnic groups, cultures and religions under the Mongolian umbrella.

Art, Culture, Traditional Craftsmanship On Display

Cultural influences from Turkey, Hungary, Persia, China and beyond were peacefully incorporated. Gifts to the world from his era include games such as chess, knuckles (bones), the precursor of puzzles like the Rubik Cube (invented 1974 by a Hungarian), embroideries, beadwork, tapestries, silk costumes and painting, horsemanship, intricate leatherwork, metalwork and more.

Exhibitions cover Bronze Age and Xiongnu archaeological cultures and fossil finds. Traveller accounts describe the welcome and easy trade and great organisation and tolerance across borders. 

A lesson in real greatness for Trump and current world leaders perhaps!

Chinggis Khaan, also regarded as the greatest military leader in world history although only commanding an army of 100,000 soldiers.

How did he manage to conquer and control countries with populations numbering millions and his dynasty last 150 years?

Some say it was because he felt a great love for his family and his people and would sacrifice his life for them. Others that he was clever and in love with learning.

Since Mongolia parted company with Soviet Russia in 1991, the legend of Chinggis Khaan and his legacy have become increasingly important as part of the Mongolian cultural identity and national pride.

It is also important to those Mongols living in other states, established in Chinggis Khaan’s time such as Afghanistan (the Hazaras), parts of China and the old USSR.  His successful leadership and rule,  the establishment of law and unification of nomadic societies, a constant source of interest to academics and historians.

The following poem was published in a university paper in Inner Mongolia about the Yunnan Mongol community who number under 7000. They identify as Mongol yet only came to the attention of Chinese officials and academia in the late 1970s.

We Are the Sons and Daughters of the Steppes: Children and Grandchildren of Chinggis Khan

We are the sons and daughters of the steppes,
children and grandchildren of Chinggis Khan.
Under the military standard of Zandan,
riding horses and holding bows, we fought
across vast lands of the North and South.
Passing the steppes on our magical horses
and crossing the Jinsha River on (inflated)
leather bags and bamboo rafts,
we camped at the Ka Qu Tuo Frontier,
under the military standard
of Zandan.

We are the sons and daughters of the steppes,
children and grandchildren of Chinggis Khan.
We planted trees and set up schools and promoted
culture and civilisation, and our awesome
cavalry maintained peace and harmony.
Under the leadership of Zandan
we guarded the southern frontier.

We are the sons and daughters of the steppes,
children and grandchildren of Chinggis Khan.

Zandon was the son of Altemur, commander of the Mongol Yuan troops during the Yuan dynasty, his HQ at Qutuo Pass.

(The Yunnan Mongols renewed interest in genealogy similar to that of the African Americans inspired by the novel Roots. They want their children to be able to speak and read and write Mongolian and have imported teachers.)

Chinggis Khaan was a deeply spiritual person but also practical. The changes he brought to the world long-lasting. He encouraged widespread education.

In his time,  people wandered freely, traded, mixed and learnt from each other, sharing ideas as well as goods. Nomadic peoples who glanced at the horizon, ever-mindful of Mother Nature, knowing instinctively where and when to move to survive. 

Many still do this today in modern Mongolia, respecting tribal or clan connections. 

Now???

In Europe and other parts of the world, there is so much suspicion, fear and hatred of the other. Border forces and farces. Freedom to travel not a given anymore. Permits needed to build houses never mind move across country with all your goods and chattels!

What would the world look like if Chinggis Khaan had never lived?

Interesting to speculate and those thoughts and much more enriched my visit as I examined exhibits of everyday utensils, clothes, belt buckles, knives, tales of sacred animals,  ancient tools, religious artefacts and objects made or gilded with gold.

 

khan for a day indeed
Chinggis Khaan’s “throne” – I imagined being a ‘khan’ for the day!

 

Outside in the grounds, I was at last up close to a traditional ger albeit dwarfed by statues representing Mongol warriors – the army that protected Chinggis Khaan and also advanced his empire.

From the top of the main statue, the view is stunning and gives you a perspective of the size of Mongolia – vast swathes of dusty plains and snow-capped mountains sparsely populated.

Few trees survive here because of the wind.

At the ger, a little boy three or four years old was fascinated by my speech. He overheard me speaking and approached us to ask Ada, 

How is she talking? What is she saying?”

I smiled and said, “Hello.”

He mimicked me, “Hello, hello.”

Then grabbing his little friend by the arm, he followed me repeating, hello. Perhaps my Scottish accent was a new experience!

I’d smile and answer, “hello” and they’d run a few feet away or to their parents but always returned to dance around us, repeating “hello“.

Ada went into teacher mode and after a quick lecture to the boys in Mongolian, which I assumed was on courtesy, she sent them packing with a critical look at their parents.

The boy and his family left to annoy the man with birds of prey on display.

In the shadow of the horse statues, it was easy to envisage the scenes that inspired the art work I bought from the young artist in Sukhbaatar Square. The image of Chinggis Khaan painted on leather and the two watercoloured cards, contrasting day and night, evocative of the period as were many pictures in the complex.

All this public reverence of Chinggis Khaan is relatively new and linked to Mongolia’s independence from the Soviet Union, although his importance to traditional Mongolian culture never faltered.

The symbol as such has shown not only an amazing level of tenacity but also a high degree of adaptability in taking on new meanings in relation to different historical contexts and different socio-political entities. For the Mongols, it has evolved from a symbol of imperial legitimacy and privilege grounded in absolute kinship ideology and relevant exclusively to the Golden Descendants, to a potent symbol of ethnic/national identity shared by Mongols all over the world, just as the historical Mongols have gradually evolved from an empire of tribal confederation to a nation of and ethnic entity of solidarity. Thus the claim “we are the children and grandchildren of Chinggis Khan”…

Chinggis Khan, From Imperial Ancestor to Ethinic Hero, Almaz Khan

A famous Mongolian rock group, Hongk composed a song about Chinggis Khaan and performed it in March 1990 at the time the new Mongolian Republic was being formed.

Forgive Us

Forgive us for not daring
to breathe your name.
Though there are thousands of statues,
there is none of you.
We admired you in our hearts
but we dared not breathe your name.

The Equestrian Statue and Complex, plus the statues in Ulaanbaatar have rectified the suppression of this important symbol of the Mongol during the Soviet period.

(Founded in 1924, the Mongolian People’s Republic was, until the breakup of the USSR and its empire in 1991, the oldest Eastern Bloc country as well as the second oldest socialist country in the world – after the USSR. Despite political and economic dependence on Russia, much of the national culture enjoyed autonomy and protection.)

There is also a resurgence of Mongolian language and traditional script and a recognition Uighurjin Mongol script has carried history, culture, traditions and customs and fortifies Mongolian independence.

Written vertically, the characters take different forms from the beginning, middle, and end of the word. The oldest existing text believed to be on Chinggis Khaan’s Stone – the replica outside the National Museum in Ulaanbaatar and the original at the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia.

Mongolian script is not only a writing system but an art form with meaningful strokes. The script’s “tig” strokes were developed in various styles, resulting in an almost abstract style used in calligraphy nowadays.

Huge examples hang in the foyer of the complex with the rich heritage of Mongolian manuscripts categorised into three categories: religious, historical and folklore.

When the Russians influenced Mongolia, the Cyrillic script became official for public buildings and street names and in schools but Uighurjin is making a comeback.

I watched a young girl demonstrate the script and for a couple of dollars, she wrote my name, which looks much more impressive than it does in English!

In between being immersed in the ancient culture, absorbing historical facts, and the context of impressive and expansive exhibits there were interactions with people, like the little boy.

I discovered I wasn’t the only one scared of heights yet determined to climb to the top of the equestrian statue. I chose the stairs and reached the top to a breathtaking view. A lovely family took pictures of me and I of them while we huddled and clung to the wall to make sure the gale force wind didn’t blow us across the steppes.

Outside there was a wedding party using the monument for stunning photographs of their special day just as many Melburnians choose Parliament House or Federation Square or other iconic sites.

wedding in Mongolia

Watching the wedding party prompted a discussion with Bemba and Ada.

Bemba is the youngest of eight siblings. She is not married and has no children. 

Ada is one of five siblings. She married but did not have a traditional big wedding. She has two children. A daughter lives in Melbourne and is studying her Masters in International Accounting at a QUT campus. Ada taught Russian and English in secondary school before working as a tour guide. 

Mongolians traditionally had big families but like westerners, they have fewer children nowadays probably a maximum of three. However, the family unit is still everything.

Ada was born in a ger and grew up in one. Her parents have ‘returned to country’ some distance from Ulaanbaatar and at 76 and 80 years old they have moved into their first house and will enjoy the comfort of permanence, running water, and an indoor toilet.

I returned to the complex to visit the toilet and through a joint doorway, the backs of men could be seen as they urinated. Ah, cultural quirks and customs. It reminded me of a visit to France in 1984 when a similar design was used in several places we stopped.

One last look at the magnificent foyer, the beautifully carved pipe resting on the wings of a mythical beast and a photo opportunity beside the giant traditional boot.

Before leaving for the Terelj National park, I bought a card in Mongolian script as a memento.

A silhouette of a horse galloping free beside the word for joy.

mongolian card meaning JOY

I knew that feeling!

 

 

 

A Visit To Mongolia Will Make You Marvel At Life

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I’ve been home from my travels for over a month and several people have asked ‘where are the posts about your trip?’

Where indeed?

How to start – to write to please readers, as well as myself – to do justice to my experience. To rely on a memory that doesn’t work as well as it did when I was younger!

I have Facebook posts and text messages written in a hurry and scribbled journal notes hard to read.

Whenever I travelled years ago and sent letters and postcards home, Dad said I wrote like a trained spider. Well now, with years of tapping keyboards, the spider is no longer trained!

Unfortunately, my plans to use the top shelf Lenovo tablet the girls bought for me, did indeed, as best laid plans do  ‘gang aft a gley‘! Memo to travellers – don’t take new equipment unless you have more than one quick lesson from people more capable than yourself.

Thank goodness for the photographs on my Samsung phone – too many in this digital age – but they do jog the memory. Thank goodness too for Google Drive storage and a daughter with patience to save data to a separate hard drive.

The photographs will help create cameo narratives, something I’ve been encouraging my life story students to do this week.

WRITING MEMORIES FROM A PHOTOGRAPH

Examine a photograph, put yourself back in that moment, consider what was going on in your life at the time, what we don’t see before or after the photograph was taken, and write… great for family albums and scrapbooks, but the method will also help write life stories towards a memoir or autobiography and family history.

And I can recreate my travels.

Why Mongolia?

 

map of Mongolia from encyclopedia 1960? copy
Map of Mongolia circa 1950

 

I’ve mentioned before that I trace an urge to travel, and the restlessness and curiosity I’ve always felt about the world, back to childhood.  Absorbed in the contents of a set of children’s encyclopedias, Dad bought from a door-to-door salesman in 1960, I wanted to see all the lands the colourful flags represented.

Most of the pages and photographs were black and white, but in one volume, the block of full-colour photographs detailing flags a magnet for my curious eyes.

Many a dreich (bleak) day in wintry Greenock brightened by tracing and drawing the flags. Imagination fired by the unusual names of various countries giving a glimpse of the world beyond Scotland.

Where were these lands? What were the people like? How did they live?

This extract from the introductory page, taken to heart:

You will find some day, my young friends that, though words pretend to say what you mean, they do not say what you really mean at all, and I do not know of any words that can tell you all I want to say to you and all that this book means to me. Yet it is your book, and the story of it belongs to you…

…the great wonder of the earth. What does the world mean? And why am I here? Where are all the people who have been and gone? Where does the rose come from? Who holds the stars up there? What is it that seems to talk to me when the world is dark and still?

… “Oh for a book that will answer all the questions!”…

That is how our book began… it is a Big Book for Little People, and it has come into the world to make your life happy and wise and good. That is what we are meant to be. This is what we will help each other to be.

Your affectionate Friend, Arthur Mee

from The Children’s Encyclopedia founded by Arthur Mee

YOU ARE NEVER TOO OLD TO CROSS ITEMS OFF YOUR BUCKET LIST

At almost 64 years of age, I set out to realise a childhood dream to travel the Trans Siberian Railway. To explore another part of ‘the great wonder of the earth.

My starting point Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city.

After engaging Flower Travel, the experts on such a journey, I planned the kind of trip I wanted with their agent Heidi Mason, who did a fantastic job.

  • I love history, I wanted to travel as much as possible using local trains, not be stuck with tourists.
  • I had a limited budget and was not precious about staying in fancy hotels but where possible I wanted access to clean toilets and showers.
  • Most of all I wanted to travel safely – my days of freewheeling, trusting everything to work out or hoping there’ll be accommodation available gone with my youth!

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Mongolia-Voucher.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

However, when the plane touched down on April 1st, with all the cultural connotations that date has, a little voice whispered are you an April’s Fool? What on earth are you doing here alone? What if no one meets you? What is Plan B?

I queued at Immigration & Customs clutching passport and visa, plus hotel details and proof I’d depart in a few days and prayed the officials spoke good English.

If it is one regret I have it is a lack of ability with other languages, although even expert linguists say Mongolian is difficult to learn! I downloaded the free Google Translate App for Mongolian and Russian but speech output isn’t available for Mongolian so you can’t hear how the words are pronounced – or have a conversation with someone via the App.

My fears of failing to communicate groundless because there is a growing knowledge of English in Mongolia and Russia and I discovered I mime very well – especially in situations that are universal to people regardless of where you live!

I didn’t sleep much on the Air China flight from Melbourne to Beijing – who can these days travelling Economy Class? At a little over five feet and a size 12-14, I still felt squashed on the plane. I’m sure the designers of aeroplane seats missed their vocation as torturers.

My flight almost 12 hours, plus the obligatory sleepless night pre travel and the queuing and security before the flight – a standard recipe for exhaustion!

Fatigue kicked in and the reviving blast of cold air disembarking from the plane at Beijing and walking across the tarmac to waiting buses soon dissipated.

 

jetlag plus.jpg
how I felt

 

The two hours in transit in China taken up with queuing for the toilet (my first stop), negotiating more security, and ensuring the right path to the Transit Lounge,  puzzling over the instructions to access free WiFi, and double-checking I was in the right queue to check-in for my flight to Ulaanbaatar.

It’s disconcerting and confronting listening to announcements in a language you don’t know and hoping when English is pronounced you understand what is said. Ditto for signs that are not always multi-lingual despite being in a place like an airport or train station.

I didn’t attempt to buy a coffee but dry-mouthed fear made me search for a much-needed cup of fresh water. Not as simple a task as you’d think.

Technological expertise needed everywhere nowadays – even to use simple vending machines.

I felt empathy for the waves of foreign nationals I see floating around Melbourne Airport.

Was I wearing a stunned mullet look or one of fearful confusion as I struggled to find the code for wifi and also fill a cup with water?

 TRAVEL LESSON NUMBER ONE:

Never underestimate how quickly confidence, ability, and good judgement disappears with culture shock and the effects of lack of sleep!

arrived Mongolia airport
arrival in Ulaanbaatar
My driver Mongolia
Bemba, my driver for Mongolia

A smile and courtesy never go astray. What a relief to see a white paper sign with “MRS NEIL” in bold black ink, held aloft by a casually-dressed woman wearing a polite smile.

I’ve watched this scene in countless movies and it was repeated throughout my travels in Russia. Thank you,  Heidi Mason, your planning worked to perfection!

Bemba, my driver for Mongolia, a most welcoming sight at the airport! She apologised for her ‘poor English’.

Please don’t apologise, my Mongolian is non-existent!’

Two minutes later, the old man who accosted us in the car park not so polite or apologetic. Dressed in traditional garb, he thrust 3 stamped postcards at me.

“Buy… buy… bargain.”

His long hair, moustache, and beard reminding me of Hollywood’s Fu Manchu. I tried to remember the worth of the handful of Mongolian notes I’d converted before leaving Australia but he knew what currency he wanted.

“Dollars, dollars.”

I gave him a couple of US dollars as Bemba stepped between us and hurried me to the car.

Dismissed, Fu Manchu left to harass someone else and I stared at three unspectacular postcards with stamps of different value.

Now they’re a reminder that no matter where you go in the world there will always be someone spruiking.  Tired, gullible tourists not yet acclimatised easy prey.

Tree of Gobi, Sum Khukh Burd, Dundgobi and Reindeer herder are not the Mongolia I experienced but the postcards indicative of parts of the amazing country.

postcards of Mongolia.jpg

From the airport, snow-capped mountains in the distance hinted at the wild Mongolia I’d read about and probably home to the reindeer of the postcard, but as we headed for the city proper the rows of new apartments and sprouting high rise buildings reminded me of China 1979!

Evidence of construction, modernisation and development lined extra wide streets still showing clumps of snow leftover from a recent blizzard.

In fact, the day beneath a deep blue sky and wandering wispy clouds, warmer than I expected.  Bemba pointed to her short sleeves with a grin as I sat in the back seat,  sweltering in layers of a vest, top and fur-lined coat. What happened to the -6 degrees I’d been warned to expect?

A glimpse of a traditional ger and an impressive sculpture of a camel train stirred excitement and anticipation.  I’ve made it to Mongolia and tomorrow night I’ll be sleeping in a ger.

Hotel Nine, my accommodation for the first night, advertised as central to ‘nature, culture and temples… 400 metres from Sukhbaatar Square,’ a 14-kilometre drive.  Long enough to observe buildings, people, and the heavy traffic.

Bemba said peak hour was over yet the traffic manic! Most cars are second-hand Japanese or Korean.

Various measures introduced to deal with traffic congestion and pollution caused by petrol and diesel fumes have had limited success. Restrictions designed to encourage fewer cars on the road are circumvented.

In the city, you can only drive on the days your number plate allows – no exemptions. The week divided into days when only cars with even number plates can drive and other days for odd numbers.

People get around regulations by having two or more cars.  Even the travel company chauffeuring me!

The view from the car revealed an Ulaanbaatar similar to many cities in the west.

I couldn’t wait to shower, stretch on a bed, and with a cup of tea in hand, plan the rest of the day to discover what makes this city different.

Day one of my ‘inspired journey’ began at 11.00 am.

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Hotel Nine’s advantages: on-site restaurant, free WiFi, flat screen TV, kettle and tea-making facilities, private bathroom with bathrobe, slippers and free toiletries.

A little voice said ‘Enjoy this comfort zone while you can!’ The facilities excellent but the friendly staff the greatest asset.

The young male receptionist thrilled to meet an Aussie. His rugby coach in high school from Sydney. He still enjoyed the sport and hoped one day to travel overseas.

When I asked where the nearest bank was to exchange money, he checked on the Internet but also rang a friend to double-check opening times because it was Saturday.

He explained the route on the tourist map of the city.  We agreed that the scale of maps in most tourist brochures inaccurate and often misleading so he printed off easier to read instructions.

Despite this diligence,  I still got lost!

I confess to getting lost and confused at least once in every city I visited. Map reading, not my best skill.

However, I always managed to correct mistakes and when lost, discovered wonderful gems I may otherwise have missed.

Ulaanbaatar that first day no exception and with each find, I thought of those silver linings Mum used to talk about.

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April 1, 2017 – texting daughter, MaryJane

Hi, Love. In Mongolia and met at the airport. So far so good.
At hotel. Only one bar of wi fi. I’m going to have a shower. Will keep trying to phone then I’m going for a walk before dark. What time is it there? Don’t want to wake you too early. Or miss you if going out. xx

 

MaryJane to me

It is 4.05pm here on Saturday. What time is it there?

To MaryJane

It is 1.51 in afternoon. China is 3 hours behind and Mongolia is 2.
Flight better than expected although not much sleep. Security a bit of a nightmare and confusion but thank goodness I didn’t have drama like some people. Muslim women had headscarves poked and prodded. Pretty used to it all now. My prosthesis caused issues at Melbourne with a new machine that body scans. The young man so embarrassed when I explained anomaly on the screen. He asked a female to body-search me. Thank God China and Mongolia do not have that super-duper technology yet.

A Stroll in Ulaanbaatar

In search of a bank, I discovered a vibrant city with wide streets and impressive buildings. The hotel conveniently located and with a grid design the central city easy to explore.

STATISTICS FOR ULAANBAATAR & MONGOLIA

  • The current population of Mongolia is 3,056,876 as of Sunday, August 13, 2017, based on the latest United Nations estimates.
  • Mongolia population is equivalent to 0.04% of the total world population.
  • Mongolia ranks number 137 in the list of countries (and dependencies) by population.
  • The population density in Mongolia is 2 per square Km (5 people per square mile).
  • The total land area is 1,582,339 square Kilometres (610,944 square miles)
    72.4 % of the population is urban (2,209,488 people in 2017)
  • The median age in Mongolia is 27.6 years.
  • The population of Mongolia will be increased by 145 persons daily in 2017. (As opposed to the population of Australia will be increased by 1 053 persons daily in 2017.
  • The population of Ulaanbaatar is 844,818

From the hotel room, I saw some examples of the public buildings built when the Soviets were in charge, especially during Stalin’s time.  Mongolia gave Russia short shift during Perestroika and now as old buildings are replaced with new there’s an even greater move to privatisation to attract investment but also to move away from sameness and serviceability being the criteria.

Fascinating photos, please keep them coming! That’s interesting architecture, sort of like a Chinese riff on those houses in Bloomsbury with a colonnade linking them all together.

Friend Lisa on Facebook :

Mongolia is proud to be democratic and voter turn out is 87% although not compulsory. The transition to privatisation has winners and losers and the current government still coping with the aftermath of GFC, Russia’s push to regain ground lost and of course, China forever an uneasy neighbour considering their past history.

The building Lisa referred to was The National School of Music and Hotel Nine being in close proximity to the Arts precinct meant I walked past it every time I left the hotel.

I heard lovely strains of classical music float from open doors or windows and saw a stream of young people come and go.

A walk to Sukhbaatar Square a delight. Families, teenagers, tourists, and artists touted their wares. No doubt a typical Saturday afternoon. It is a huge space and despite plenty of activities, there were large tracts of emptiness.

Western dress the norm and from a distance, I could have been in an Australian city, but up close government buildings and statues paid homage to Chinggis Khaan and other legends of the Mongol!

ulaanbaatar day one panoramic view of square.jpg

People were friendly, they posed for photos and took ones of me.  Mairi Neil was there!

The streets were clean. Many rubbish bins included ashtrays, also dual bins encouraged recycling. An  Eco toilet in the park built alongside a special place for smokers. What an innovative idea – I never saw anyone walking around smoking.

However, my eyes started to sting and water. I thought it was the slight wind and a change of temperature so persevered but I began to long to be indoors.

I found the bank – or a bank.  ( I did get lost.)

Converted some of the US dollars I’d been advised to bring to colourful Mongolian tögrög.(tugrik)

Main mission accomplished, I negotiated the busy intersections by attaching myself to locals and crossing with them because despite traffic lights the cars seemed to be able to turn regardless of whether it was red or green.  An absence of road rules I understood made me nervous!

At last, I found the National Museum and before even going inside to see their fabulous collection of historic and ethnographic artefacts, I fed my love of history and art.

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There is an amazing sculpture to the victims of political purges common under Stalin, a replica of a stone praising the great Mongolian leader Chinggis Khaan, ancient carved deer stones and a huge temple bell signifying the country’s links with the established religions of Buddhism and Hinduism.

 

The Mongol Empire was the largest land empire and the second largest overall empire in world history. 

The most famous Mongolian, the powerful Chinggis Khaan (Genghis Khan). He brought together the tribes and clans of the Mongols to establish an empire. The Mongols ruled most of Europe including Eastern Europe, Iran, Central Asia, part of south east Asia, and all of China.

The Mongolian people share many customs with nearby Turkic peoples. The most obvious being that both live in yurts, which Mongolians call gers. They have nomadic traditions, the horse a central feature in their culture, and many still practice Tengriism (Turko-Mongol shamanism).

In addition to its historic and linguistic importance, this carved ‘stele’ replica gives an explanation of the successful Mongolian military campaigns of the 13th century. The inscription dedicated to the son of Khasar, Chinggis Khaan’s brother.

The stone found in eastern Siberia in 1818 and removed from Mongolia to St Petersburg in Russia in 1936 where it is still in the State Hermitage Museum. I wonder if Mongolia has ever demanded the original be returned?

The inscription translated as:

“While Chinggis Khaan was holding an assembly of Mongolian dignitaries, after his conquest of Sartuul, Esunk, he shot a target at 335 alds” (530metres).

No wonder he is revered as a great warrior!

The Temple Bell an important symbol of the importance of Buddhism, the major religion in Mongolia.  Stalinism tried to wipe it out but it has survived and thrived.

One of the most powerful pieces of art I’ve experienced was in front of the National Museum with this explanatory plaque.

VICTIMS OF POLITICAL PURGES MEMORIAL

The decision to erect a memorial to the victims of political purges was made in 1991 and in1997 the monument designed by L. Bold was unveiled in front of the National Museum of Mongolia. The black cubic structure symbolizes oppression and grief, and the figure of a broken human torso with the head soaring upward reflects the tragic fate of the condemned yet their resolve and hope to seek the truth in light. The empty space between the frame and human figure reflects the idea that this historic tragedy shall never be erased or faded from our memory. This monument is considered the first work of modern art to be constructed in Ulaanbaatar after 1990.

The deer stone carvings discovered by a joint Mongolian-Russian archaeological team at the site of Surtiin Denj, located in Burentogtokh surn of Khovsgol aimag, in 2006. Some of the images, including a pair of fish and a spoked wheel, are rarely depicted on deer stones in Mongolia and Eurasia!

Mongolia is home to multiple types of paleontological findings, including rare species, ancient plants, and rare minerals. Various types of animals and plants, some never found in any other country, have been living in Mongolian territory for thousands of years. It’s a great place to find fossil dinosaurs and other extinct creatures!

So was it irony or serendipity that saw me spending my first night in Mongolia, relaxing on the bed, sipping a cup of soup and watching the latest movie creation from JK Rowling’s books?

 

Fantastic Beasts movie on TV Mongolia.jpg
The movie Fantastic Beasts – with captions:)

 

I completed much more than the requisite 10,000 steps to keep fit that first afternoon walking around Ulaanbaatar and I didn’t need rocking to sleep.

Well rested, next morning, I was downstairs before the pick-up time of 9.30am to breakfast on muesli, fresh fruit and English Breakfast tea and start day two:

  • A tour of the Gandan Monastery Complex
  • A visit to the Chinggis Khaan Equestrian Statue
  • transfer to the Buuviet Ger Camp, Terelj National park

I met Ada, my guide for the next three days but before we did any sightseeing I had to get help for my eyes, which had ached all night and started to weep the minute I stepped outside. Was I allergic to Mongolia? Or the residue of sweet incense permeating the hotel walls?

eye drops from Mongolia

We called into a chemist a few moments later. Bought some eye drops. What a relief.

Ada explained my problem and I was given the drops with the assurance they’d work. And they did. It was the pollution in the air irritating my eyes.

Like a throwback to 1979 China! Mongolians living in the suburban ger camps burn fossil fuels like coal as well as wood, they also burn a lot of rubbish like old tyres to save money. The seasonal wind made the smog deceptive but it was there and my eyes detected it.

Thank you, Ada, I would have taken forever to track down a chemist and explain my problem! 

Day Two here I come…

Open House Melbourne Will Open Your Eyes To The City’s Charms

sun setting on Skye

2017 is my seventh year volunteering for Open House Melbourne weekend, an experience I love. I’m so glad to be back from an overseas trip for the event, especially since this year is a significant tenth anniversary.

10 Years of Inspiring Architecture

Emma Telfer, the new Executive Director of the Open House Melbourne Program  is

“incredibly proud to lead an organisation that’s committed to empowering citizens to be active participants in the building of our city. 

Open House Melbourne now represents an annual program of talks, tours, workshops and interviews that explore the issues, challenges and success stories of Melbourne’s built environment. 

At the heart of our program is the much-loved Open House Weekend… where 200 buildings are opening their doors so you can learn how the built environment and urban-planning initiatives influence our culture and shape our future.

 

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Nicholas Building, 37 Swanston Street, Melbourne

I was assigned Folk Architects, a studio on the eighth floor,

longstanding tenants who are capturing the spirit of the place through a publication that aims to uncover the Building’s architectural, social and cultural histories.”

The building itself was built in 1926 and the architect was Harry A Norris. It was an investment by the Nicholas family who made their fortune from Aspro.

From 1926 to 1967 a Coles department store occupied the basement and part of the ground floor. The building was home to businesses associated with the Flinders Lane garment trade, commercial artists, medical practitioners and architects. By the 2010’s the small rooms and relatively cheap rent attracted creative industry practitioners and specialist retailers, some of whom still serve the fashion industry, and it became renowned as one of Melbourne’s ‘vertical lanes’.

The novel Shantaram, written by one of Australia’s most wanted fugitives Gregory David Roberts, was written in the building. In 2003, it is believed a stencil by UK artist Banksy was painted on the building at the corner of Swanston St and Flinders Lane; a piece of plastic was put up over the piece to protect it from the elements but was later painted over by vandals causing a disturbance in the art community.

From Wikipedia

It is listed by the National Trust and is also listed by Heritage Victoria.

The National Trust of Australia highlights the architectural value of the Nicholas Building’s Cathedral Arcade on the ground floor, connecting Swanston Street to Flinders Lane; the Wunderlich terracotta cladding and thirdly, the unique condition of the building with very few alterations from its original design…

from 10 Years of Inspiring Architecture, Open House Melbourne 2017

When I turned up for duty, it is the amazing leadlight ceiling in the Cathedral Arcade and how the stained and etched glass has been incorporated in shop fronts that set the building apart from many of the new shopping malls and high-rise buildings.

There is also a patterned and ceramic tiled floor adding to the heritage signature. No wonder it rates hundreds of 4-star reviews on Trip Advisor and is described as a photographer’s delight.

This Is Why We Must Look Up and Look Down

For people into art deco, the arcade features beautiful, polished wood panels with many of the original features retained by this “interwar palazzo skyscraper“.

Like many other locals, I’ve hurried up Swanston Street or visited one of the many tenants in the Nicholas Building without fully appreciating how stunning the entrance and walkway is – the motif in the domed entrance triggers thoughts of Aladdin and his lamp – a great thought because the design is magical!

cathedral place genie design 2017

The name of the arcade apt too because just across the way is St Paul’s Cathedral, another favourite to visit during Open House, Melbourne.

 

The blurb for Open House Weekend describes how the building “continues to host a burgeoning creative community that is a catalyst for ongoing renewal. The relationship between the Nicholas Building and its inhabitants is inseparable as the building enriches the lives of its occupants.”

 

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Artist tenants looking for companions to share costs

 

As I stood at the entrance to the lifts to guide the 400 plus people who visited Folk Architects on the eighth floor I saw plenty of examples supporting their view that:

“Given that there isn’t a single signature building that defines Melbourne – the Nicholas Building represents the city in many ways as it is unassuming, diverse, culturally rich yet not ostentatious. It is a series of small and diverse tenancies, sublets with folk that are curiously interconnected. The building is also a microcosm of its surrounding laneway networks… it has the capacity to provide something for everybody – however, you might have to look beyond the surface to find the magic!”

Christie Petsinis – Folk Architects

An interesting snippet is that the Nicholas Building was home to the last manually operated elevator in Melbourne.

I worked for the Victorian Branch of the Federated Miscellaneous Workers’ Union in the 1980s and can remember printing off the Lift Attendants’ Award. I can also remember that many buildings in Melbourne employed people to operate the lifts, which before modernisation had two doors and manual controls.

 

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The lifts on the first floor

 

This Is Why I Volunteer

Part of the enjoyment of volunteering for Open House Weekend is the interaction with the people you meet as well as enjoying a different perspective of the building. I’ve been lucky over the years with those I’ve worked with but also with the buildings allocated.

Last year it was Abbotsford Convent in Collingwood, the year before it was Edgewater Towers, St Kilda. I’ve been on duty at Como House, Fitzroy High School and the Women’s Centre in Lonsdale Street where the Jessie Mac hospital used to be. Different buildings and settings encapsulating the diversity of Melbourne’s architecture and design.

Yesterday Vincent my co-volunteer who works at Crown Casino and another gaming establishment volunteered “to stay connected and give back to the community“. Gabrielle, the Precinct Manager is in her seventh-year too and loves the possibilities of learning and appreciating Melbourne by visiting lots of buildings over the weekend. She was excited that her children now participate.

I love the sharing of stories that begins even before the weekend starts. When I mentioned to a friend where I was on duty she reminisced about her hairdressing days decades ago when she was employed in a salon in the Nicholas Building. An author now she reminded me that The Wheeler Centre used to be in the Nicholas Building and I recalled attending events there.

There is still a bookshop on the first floor which hosts author events – the owner forthright about being captive in a much-photographed building!

There were several women who had come for a special presentation in The Kimono House on the second floor. The demonstration of various ways to don a kimono and explanation of the textile, design and various garment parts was a booked-out event.

I convinced the attendees who had some time to spare to take the lift up to the eighth floor and take advantage of Open House or call in when their event was finished.

Many of those who were visiting other floors were happy to join in Open House once I explained the aim of the weekend. Thank goodness the organisers give volunteers the identifying scarf and badge, but more importantly the book with information on the buildings open.

It was satisfying to direct people to nearby open buildings, especially those who were tourists and had only a few hours in the city.

This year the theme colour of black and white may have been popular with Collingwood supporters, however for members of the public, the scarves were drab and hard to spot. In the words of one lady, “You blended into the walls, I didn’t see you there!”

Not exactly a self-esteem boost but accurate nonetheless. Signage and identifying colours important, especially for those people racing from one building to the other and not taking the time to research the exact location or opening times.

 

7 years of volunteering Open House
Vibrant colours work best

 

On the train into the city, I sat beside Yvonne who used to own The Cowboys, a retail outlet in Mordialloc. The place a legend when my daughters were growing up – reinventing itself from bric-a-brac and second-hand goods to antiques. She owned the shop with her first husband, Graham.

With her new partner, John,  she heading into Melbourne to enjoy Open House, “a weekend not to be missed.”

My badge a conversation starter. Yvonne loved attending Open House and she and John had a list of places to see. They booked into a hotel overnight to make attending some of the popular places easier. A great idea.

We shared stories of Mordialloc and mutual acquaintances – it is indeed a small world!

As I stood at the entrance to the lifts I reflected on how life is never boring. One lady remembered attending ‘a school for young ladies‘ in the building and learning commercial subjects. At the same time, she recalled there was a ‘film studio’ on another floor where “those kinds of films” were made with “not so nice young ladies“.

A book on past tenants is bound to be a best seller!

Ten Stunning Photos From the Nicholas Building

Before I took up duty on the Ground Floor, I spent some time appreciating Folk Architects – especially the view from Room 815!

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I asked Tim how he remained focused on work. I’d be tempted to stare out of the window.

He agreed it was difficult some days and said how privileged he was particularly seeing the change of seasons on the swathe of trees lining St Kilda Road and surrounding parkland.

However, when it is an everyday availability, human nature kicks in and despite the distraction, familiarity lets you concentrate on work at hand.

And what amazing work Tim and his partner showcased.

Visitors heard or saw evidence of the various briefs completed and works in progress. Their fresh, innovative and sustainable approach evident in the pictures on the wall, objects in the room and awards and plans on display.

Most of the work for suburban or outer suburban landscapes but Tim’s design also used at Abbotsford Convent.

 

Visitors could see examples of materials and quirky as well as practical design. One woman attempted to sit on a chair made from a bicycle seat but thankfully changed her mind. I know basic first aid but wouldn’t consider myself an expert!

 

Folk Architects was open from 10.00am to 1.00pm but before leaving the Nicholas Building I had a last look at some of the other floors.

The stairwells and shop fronts also attractive to photographers I’m sure.

The steady stream of people using the lifts included tenants and workers. I saw several men wheeling trollies with laundry and toilet supplies as well as artists turning up for work in their studios clutching the obligatory cup of coffee heart starter.

However, I’m glad there were over 400 extra visitors -including me – to appreciate one of the city’s architectural gems!

I wonder what building I’ll be assigned next year.

 

Dunkirk – A dynamic take on Operation Dynamo

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Movie Promo

SPOILERS AHEAD!

I went to Southland with my friend Barbara to treat her to a movie and lunch for her birthday.

We agreed on Dunkirk, although we knew if it was historically accurate it would not be light cinematic entertainment.

Our childhoods spent in the shadow of WW2 – Barbara in the 1940s and me in the 1950s – so war stories, if not from family, then from school, novels, television and film ever present. 

However, so much that is offered at the cinema today doesn’t appeal and the Dunkirk story seemed a good choice. It is about a definitive moment in World War Two of mythological proportions like the RAF’s Battle Of Britain.

Years ago, I was told my uncle sailed from Scotland to help with the rescue therefore like many families throughout Britain mine had some involvement.  Others knew someone, whether a member of the British Expeditionary Force plucked from the beaches, or aboard one of the huge fleet of ships, both naval and civilian, which crossed the English Channel in the attempt to save them.

Dunkirk, the movie, tells the story of Operation Dynamo – not from the point of view of government or military command but from the perspective of the ordinary soldiers (army, navy and air) and the civilians called upon to help them return ‘home’ to England.

(The link highlighted above is an article published in 2015 on the 75th anniversary revealing ’40 amazing facts’ about the operation and is a good starting point if you know nothing about it.) 

This 1940 evacuation of hundreds of thousands of allied troops trapped on the beaches of France turned a massive military defeat into a humanitarian triumph and spawned the phrase ‘Dunkirk Spirit.’ Words used in times of adversity when ordinary people show stoicism and courage beyond expectations. Words that became part of British culture.

The Setting of Dunkirk

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In the early stages of the war, the advancing German Army swept through Belgium and Northern France to rout the British Expeditionary Force and their French allies and trap them at the Port of Dunkirk

The recreation of the armies on the beach with nowhere safe to go as sand and sea explode around them creates some of the most intense and distressing scenes of the movie, especially when seen through the eyes of the main characters.

The setting was intense, and for the movie adaptation, Nolan strove to make the scenes feel as realistic as possible. He filmed on the beach during the summer so the weather would be right, and he tried to avoid computer-generated imagery (CGI) as much as possible. Instead of having spectators feel like they’re in a theater, Nolan wrote in an essay for the Telegraph, he decided that “we’re going to put them on the beach, feeling the sand getting everywhere, confronting the waves … on small civilian boats bouncing around on the waves on this huge journey heading into a terrifying war zone.”

Even the props were legit: The crew used actual World War II-era ships from nine countries, according to the Independent, including a 350-foot French destroyer that needed to be towed to the set. They also built and featured at least one replica of a vintage plane.

Newsweek.com

In the movie, there is no individual protagonist as such, just several interwoven storylines of people we grow to care about as the minutes unfold. We journey through nerve-wracking, narrow escapes from death with the two young soldiers from the opening scenes.

We fear for the lives of the Spitfire pilots battling in the air, nail-biting tension because we know they have limited fuel for the journey across the Channel and aerial combat.

We worry the small pleasure craft will survive the obstacle course of rough seas, u-boats and attacks from enemy aircraft.

The film is told from three points of view: on the beach with the infantry (including Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles), the evacuation by the navy (featuring Cillian Murphy and Mark Rylance, showing how civilians came to the rescue) and then in the air (with Tom Hardy engaging in plane combat).

Speaking about the narrative structure in Premiere magazine, Christopher Nolan stated: “For the soldiers who embarked in the conflict, the events took place on different temporalities. On land, some stayed one week stuck on the beach. On the water, the events lasted a maximum day; and if you were flying to Dunkirk, the British spitfires would carry an hour of fuel. To mingle these different versions of history, one had to mix the temporal strata. Hence the complicated structure; even if the story is very simple. Do not repeat it to the studio: it will be my most experimental film.”

quoted on imbd

Barbara and I saw the movie on the large VMax screen. The naval and air battles with accompanying ear-splitting explosions and the fear for the recognisable characters is an emotional roller coaster. The soundtrack so loud that there were several instances where I literally jumped out of my skin.

Be warned!

According to actor-director Kenneth Branagh, roughly 30 veteran Dunkirk survivors, who were in their mid-nineties, attended the premiere in London. When asked about the film, they felt that it accurately captured the event but that the soundtrack was louder than the actual bombardment, a comment that greatly amused director Christopher Nolan.

However, this is not a blood and gore war movie – much of the horror implied, although you are in no doubt about the genre.  The aim for authenticity leaves you gasping and tearful at man’s inhumanity to man.

(It is difficult not to think of the situation in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. The vast number of refugees and the constant bombardments they suffer.  The horror beamed nightly into our homes yet where is the coordinated rescue response for them?)

Barbara exclaimed at the end of Dunkirk, ‘Well, that put my blood pressure up!’

‘It raised my blood pressure too,’ I agreed. ‘And I cried.’

‘Me too,’ said Barbara. ‘I had no idea what it was like. I was a baby during the war and Dad never talked about it. My uncle was in Changi and so the war with Japan more talked about. I probably learnt about Dunkirk at school but can’t remember.’

(Historians point out that until the Fall of Singapore in 1942 the withdrawal from Dunkirk was widely viewed as the worst defeat in British military history so why would people talk about it.)

As we walked out of the cinema, I said, ‘None of us learnt about Dunkirk this way, but maybe if we did people wouldn’t be so keen to join the army and go to war – not that those poor buggers had much choice.’

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Promo for the film

Perspective Is Everything

The strength of the movie is showing the large scale event up close and personal from a variety of view points. Something writers always ask – who is telling the story?

The limited dialogue from the soldiers while on the beach and in naval ships works because they experience u-boat and air attacks and the soundtrack to their fear and the chaos of war is tension-inducing music, punctuated by explosions and all-powerful silences.

This is showing not telling – what film does best.

When interviewed by Business Insider, writer and director Christopher Nolan said,

“The tension between subjective storytelling and sort of the bigger picture is always a challenge in any film, particularly when you’re taking on, which I never have done before, historical reality.

So I really wanted to be on that beach with those guys. I wanted the audience to feel like they are there. But I also need them and want them to understand what an incredible story this is.”

Two of the soldier characters do everything they can to get off that beach and we invest our energy in their efforts.

Escapades involve a tense scene of running with a wounded soldier on a stretcher,  chosen at random so they can board a hospital ship ahead of others.

Their quick-thinking and queue-jumping raise ethical and moral questions but we feel their terror and understand their will to survive. They are both traumatised by the death and destruction they’ve seen. 

Who can blame them for not wanting to follow accepted rules or orders from people who put them there in the first place?

Likewise, the events on board one of the civilian craft involving a rescued survivor suffering shell shock and a young boy who volunteered for the rescue mission. In a scuffle on board because the survivor wants to be taken home and not be part of the rescue mission, the young boy, George falls and hits his head. He dies from the wound but the traumatised soldier is never told it was his push that killed the boy. 

When he and other survivors are finally off-loaded in England he sees a covered body taken off the boat. We assume he puts two and two together and makes four but perhaps he doesn’t.

The three storylines are woven together to form a cohesive conclusion but not neatly tied in bows or predictable endings. Life is messy and war is definitely messier.

Actions speak louder than words. Dialogue occasionally moves the story along but silence and audience interpretation work too.

Even Prime Minister Churchill’s famous speech is delivered by an ordinary soldier reading a newspaper report. His mate more interested in the free beer and accolades from civilians on the railway platform than the spin officials try to put on the debacle.

Winston Churchill had only been British Prime Minister for 16 days at the time of this event so it is probably more realistic that his speech was a bit of a non-event at the time for the soldiers.

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This is a film about human frailty and courage, about death on a grand scale and on a personal level, about the survival of the fittest and collective responsibility, about selfishness and sacrifice, about deliberate and unplanned reactions.

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Actual photograph from Dunkirk 1940

The interwoven storylines of the fictional characters in Dunkirk have been criticised as only showing the allied perspective and for being so disparate that the film is disjointed. The characters have been called weak and the split timeline confusing.

I disagree and preferred this version of history with its limited dialogue, lack of melodrama, or made up romantic nonsense such as we saw in Titanic and Pearl Harbour. The characters and their relationships are believable.

Even young George’s desire for fame displays a teenage trait. He hopped on the rescue boat because he wanted to be part of something important, he wanted his name in the paper, to be considered a somebody, not a nobody who didn’t perform well at school, who others thought wouldn’t amount to much.

When George dies from what is really a freak accident and soldiers survive horrific air battles and boat sinkings we weep for the lack of justice in the world.

The characters represented every man, the human face to an overwhelming historical event.

Who can picture 400,000 troops trapped on a stretch of beach? And comprehend that many of the 338,000 were rescued by pleasure craft – ‘Little Ships” as they became affectionally called?

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The characters in Dunkirk may be made up but Nolan did his research in creating them and recruited Joshua Levine, a historian to work on the script. He also consulted veterans before filming the movie and those who attended the premiere gave it a thumbs up.

The story arcs of the soldiers desperate to leave the beach, the civilians to the rescue and the airman who fights valiantly and is shot down make sense and like the ending of a good novel the storylines merge to a satisfying conclusion.

The war is not over but we know how it ended. We can speculate about what will ultimately happen to the characters and be grateful we glimpsed a deeper insight into a momentous historical occasion.

Art Mimicking Life

The accuracy of Nolan’s interpretation of research verified by videos available on Youtube with footage discovered in 2015 in Manchester University’s Library.

We see evacuated soldiers packed on to destroyers. All the while, other troops waited patiently on the beaches for their turn to be rescued.

“This is a truly remarkable discovery 75 years after Dunkirk, these films are testimony to the bravery of the servicemen and civilians who risked – and in many cases sacrificed – their lives to rescue the stricken army. Without Operation Dynamo, Britain would have lost the war.”

John Hodgson, Manuscripts and Archives Manager

Scenes in Nolan’s Dunkirk mirror reality from this discovered archival footage:

The footage shows the rapid passage of arriving and departing destroyers, and one Cross-Channel ferry, assisting in the evacuation. Meanwhile a destroyer fires her rear anti-aircraft guns, and another appears so low in the water as to be sinking or aground. 

Historically the films are important because they capture key moments of Operation Dynamo. We see the camera pan across the scene of fire and smoke over Dunkirk town, with its distinctive white and striped lighthouse in the background. “

Kay Gladstone, Curator at the Imperial War Museum

Apparently, Christopher Nolan first got the idea for the movie when he sailed to Dunkirk in 1992. Before he started filming he made the crossing again,  “The way the civilians would have done during the Dunkirk Evacuation. Nolan said it took 19 hours because of the conditions of the sea.”

He also “rode in the Spitfire shown in the movie in order to get a sense of the aerial feel of the fighter plane; with the purpose being to help him shoot and provide an authentically realistic experience of the dogfights for the audience.

Just as research is important for novels, so too is it important for making authentic films.

Random Scenes That Stood Out For Me

  1. When the rescued men are ushered below deck on a destroyer and it is a mug of tea and the humble but effective jam sandwich they’re given. Britain was on rations for years after the war (up until 1954) and I can remember many a jam sandwich used as a filler to stave off hunger pangs until mealtime.
  2. The defeat and despair on the faces of evacuated men crowding the decks of a destroyer as it passes the pleasure craft heading for Dunkirk.

(This poignant scene triggered a memory of a story my husband, John told me of being a young recruit in the RN in 1954. The Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu signalled the end of French colonial influence in Indochina and the defeated French forces were evacuated by the aircraft carrier, Arromanches. John said you could smell the dead and the dying before his ship came abreast of the carrier. Tradition has it that crew stand at attention and salute each other when naval ships pass or draw alongside. That didn’t happen in this case and the Brits were shocked at the despair and defeat they saw from the demoralised troops aboard Arromanches.)

3.  The joy and cheers when the first flotilla of little boats arrive at Dunkirk and the men know they will be going home. Kenneth Branagh’s convincing Commander Bolton has tears glistening and you see him struggle to keep it together and not jump up and down and cheer like his men.

4. Minesweepers protect the destroyers against u-boats. These ships were not supposed to stop and pick up survivors but many did – my Uncle Captain John Dinwoodie one of those who was awarded a DSC and Bar for risking his life for survivors in 1942-45.

At Dunkirk, Lieutenant John Dinwoodie, D.S.C., R.N.R. was skipper of a trawler and went from Scotland to help in the rescue. Passenger ferries, cargo vessels, paddle steamers, excursion ships, Dutch skoots (tugboats), British tugs, fishing boats, barges, small pleasure cruisers and yachts all participated. Up to 1300 vessels set sail in the early summer of 1940.

In the movie, Commander Bolton yells to one of the few women characters and a couple of other crew from little boats. ‘Where are you from?’ and if you know your geography there is a sense of how many citizens have responded. Scotland is not just across the channel and many boats answered the call, as well as a boat from the Isle of Man!

If you know your geography there is a sense of how many UK citizens have responded. Scotland is not just across the channel and many boats answered the call, as well as a boat from the Isle of Man!

(It is a pity the credits didn’t indicate the number of little boats but I guess Nolan was not wanting his film confused with a documentary, even although it is based on fact.)

  1. I was glad the other young deckhand went to the local paper to ensure George got his 15 minutes of fame and was recorded as one of the heroes of Dunkirk. A satisfying end to his story arc.
  2. The scene where a group of desperate soldiers trapped in an abandoned trawler turn on each other is confronting but realistic. Desperation does not bring out the best in people.

When they discover a French soldier has stolen the uniform of a dead British soldier so he can escape the ugly side of humanity appears. It doesn’t matter he has saved lives and is only showing the same survive-at-all-odds behaviour as them.  He is a foreigner, albeit an ally, and they let him know he does not belong!

Dunkirk has it all – the good, the bad and the ugly…

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the story Christopher Norton has decided to tell will keep you emotionally engaged for 106 minutes and give plenty of food for thought, debate and discussion.

What more can you ask from a film?

 

Vale – Frank Jones – Thank You For Pausing and Sharing Your Poetry…

 

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There was joy in the return from my travels, but sadness too when I heard that Frank Jones had passed away on 9th of May, aged 92 years. His funeral held at St Brigid’s Mordialloc on 18th May 2017.

As a longtime member of Mordialloc Writers’ Group, Frank’s poetry and stories have graced eight of our nine anthologies. Another broken link with the group I founded in 1995 and although I am no longer active at Mordialloc workshops, I’m sure there are many Mordi writers who grieve Frank’s passing.

 

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I was privileged to attend Frank’s family celebration for his 90th, 2015.

 

Frank celebrated his 90th birthday at our regular Readings By The Bay and was the oldest writer in our last anthology, Kingston My City, contributing a marvellous reflective essay on his 65-year relationship with Mordialloc and the City of Kingston.

A natural born writer, Frank loved poetry – especially ‘bush’ and rhyming poetry – ‘the old -fashioned kind’, he said to me when he first joined the group. He wrote from the heart, a kind compassionate heart.

 

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From Casting A Line, Mordialloc Writers’ Group  2000.

 

I’ve never forgotten when he and his wife Joan turned up at the inaugural Readings By The Bay. Frank stood up and recited from memory, a poem he had written to Joan on their wedding day 50 years before! A romantic at heart too.

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Surrounded by friends and family Frank reads at his birthday celebration, held Parkdale Footy Club.

When Joan was diagnosed with breast cancer Frank suffered deeply and was shattered when she died. He, of course, used writing to share their story.  Another poem showing his love for Joan as she struggled with treatment.

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From Up The Creek with a pen! Mordialloc Writers’ Group, 2003.

I lost my partner, John in 2003, and also had a breast cancer diagnosis in 2010. These shared sorrows added a depth to my relationship with Frank I didn’t have with other writers in the group.

Frank and I lived a street apart and sometimes bumped into each other when he walked to U3A, or latterly to his acupuncturist in McDonald Street. He’d often ring me and ask for help editing or to give an opinion on a writing idea, or to share the joy of publication.

My daughters knew who was calling before Frank offered his name – he had a distinctive Aussie twang and spoke at the level you’d expect from someone going deaf.

Mairi, is that you? It’s Frank Jones,’ he boomed.

When Frank had bouts of illness that kept him from workshops or readings, I still included him in any anthology project because he always produced a memorable poem or story.

He was a writer who understood deadlines, listened to and appreciated any feedback. Also that rarity – Frank accepted the editor’s suggestions and decisions. A boon for those who helped edit the anthologies.

Frank referred to me as his ‘writing teacher’ although he never attended any of my classes!

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Eleven O Four, Mordialloc Writers’ Group 2004

Frank used his life experiences to produce interesting and contemporary pieces: –

  • growing up in the country (Kyneton area),
  • serving in WW2 in the RAAF
  • working in the building trade (a brickie)
  • and newsagency business,
  • his love of family,
  • his British heritage
  • love of swimming – he was in the icebreaker club
  • love of golf,
  • his love of dogs, especially a particular pet
  • his determination to continue to learn the craft of writing – he wrote stories, poems and a play
  • his commitment to his Christian Faith and volunteer work for St Vinnie’s
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Casting a Line, Mordialloc Writers’ Group 2000.

A prolific writer, I can remember how proud Frank was when his family collated his poems into a beautiful leather bound volume. He brought it to Sunday Readings to show us.

What a wonderful gift for a writer – your life’s work in a gold-lettered book!

The book was for one of his significant birthdays. Frank said it was after he became an ‘OBE’, ‘over bloody eighty’!

Frank’s honesty and sense of humour will be missed too. I have many photographs of Mordialloc Writers’ events over the 21 years but only the last few years are digital and easy to add to this blog post. Below is a selection from the last five years.

In Mordialloc Writer’ eighth anthology, Off the Rails, 2012, Frank wrote about attending an interstate swimming carnival – he had a pool in his backyard and swam every morning – perhaps a key to his longevity.

To Albury Grand Railway Station

Frank Jones

Hurrah! I proclaim we’re away on the train
Without fanfare or celebration
We glide down the tracks and never look back
As we leave old Spencer Street Station.

Our journey profound, we are Albury bound
In their carnival, we’re listed to swim.
We’ll strive to be best as our bodies protest
Even though we are taut, fit, and trim.

Onwards on time through a mesh of train lines
We view backyards tightly compacted
We wonder amazed, some even quite dazed
By urban plans neatly protracted.

We pay no heed as the train picks up speed
The wheels clattering faster and faster
No one complains as we head for the plains
Where drought is a common disaster.

Soon a voice loud and clear announces
!e cafeteria is ready to serve us
!reading through seats to sample the treats
The swaying train a challenge, if nervous.

Cars on the roads and trucks with their loads
All head for unknown destinations
!e train’s horn blasts every crossing we pass
No cause for great consternation.

Wangaratta and snowfields well passed
Signposted Canberra a further location
The Murray in sight and Wodonga’s delights
We are nearing our destination.

Speed now declines … it’s the end of the line
We’ll get on without hesitation
You won’t read in the papers about our capers
Or the fun of our jubilation.

We savoured the home, of ‘Albury’s Own’
So many sacrificed for this nation
On the hill high, their memorials lie
To overlook Albury’s historic Grand Station.

 

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Albury Railway Station – grand indeed.

 

Frank wrote from the heart expressing himself in a language he understood and used daily – the best qualifications a poet can have – he was himself!  He didn’t try to emulate another style or be ‘poetic’. His words authentic. Frank Jones, the poet, writer, and raconteur will be missed.

One of the first poems of Frank’s that our group published is one I have never forgotten and is alluded to in the title of this blog post. It is one I mentioned to others when on my recent travels.

I spent a lot of time overseas visiting cemeteries. Not just chasing information about relatives but because I find them fascinating historical records. Discoveries are inspiring and intriguing, headstones holding so many stories.

Sadness too – all those people who have lived and by the state of some graves, are forgotten, or the family line has died.

 

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Up The Creek with a pen! Mordialloc Writers’ Group, 2003.

 

Frank Jones – a rich legacy indeed – thank you!

You will be remembered as more than a pause between two dates.

 

Frank at Readings By The Bay 2016
Frank enjoying my apple cake at Readings By The Bay – the main reason he attended he’d say with a grin.

 

 

 

When It’s All Right Not To Write

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My writing journey seems to be much like my life – unpredictable, a mystery, an uphill battle, full of sudden surprises and even miracles.

Some days there is a structure  – usually my teaching days when I write with my students. Other days, there are scribbled notes, ideas and perhaps the start of a poem or story, or just an observation as I try and harness whatever fleeting thought an image, event or overheard word has prompted.

Recently, I’ve been troubled by an inability to write what and how I want, never finishing the stories or poems – not so much losing interest but struggling to find the joy and passion.

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Sea-Sawing 1
Mairi Neil

When I walk by the sea, I am silenced
Not by roaring waves, tumultuous surf or crying rocks
When I walk by the sea, I am silenced
Not by the lapping wavelets or squelching sand
or the whispers of an ebbing tide.
When I walk by the sea, I am silenced
by the endless mystery of oceans
by this chameleon of colour and mood
by the changing horizon of merging sea and sky
by thoughts of the insignificance of humankind
and our attempts to tame, travel, and tease
and always the awesome sea can choose not to please
When I walk by the sea, I am silenced.

Pausing The Pen

As I prepare to go on what I am calling ‘long service leave’ (unpaid, unfortunately) from my writing classes, I’m hoping to rediscover my ‘mojo’ and enthusiasm for writing. I feel as stale and tired as my words as if I’m repeating myself and walking in circles.

Here’s hoping a term off, and weeks of new experiences as I travel the Trans-Siberian Railway and return to Scotland, my birth country to meet up with old friends and relatives, I’ll be able to reignite lost passion and enthusiasm.

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Tracking My Journey To Recovery

I’ll use the blog as a sort of journal to track my journey – inner thoughts as well as the outward physical events. I’ll write about the same subjects I suppose but perhaps have a fresh angle – definitely a different perspective!

Entries may be written in the moment, fragments and random happenings recorded – a different process from how I usually write. I’m a planner and outliner when it comes to publication, a worrier about whether anything I write is worth reading or if there is a mistake with research, grammar, spelling…

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I’ve been writing since a teenager and I love reading good writing – all I’ve ever wanted to do is be a writer that others want to read.

However, if I’m ever to achieve that dream and finish a couple of important writing projects then radical action is required. I’ll be 64 years old in August – a bit long in the tooth to be regarded as an emerging writer and entering the age bracket conscious that time can run out!

 

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A reminder of life’s fragility the last time I visited Stony Point!

 

Now for Something Completely Different

It’s time to remove myself from the comfort zone of teaching writing and helping others on their publishing journey. Breda now looks after the Mordialloc Writers’ Group – relinquishing that was a major step for me to take because I founded the group over 21 years ago – but the freedom I feel with the cliched weight off my shoulders is wonderful.

I’m going to fulfil another item on the ‘bucket list’ made after I survived a breast cancer interlude. Hopefully, there will be a few more crossed off the list in the future.

A couple of years ago, I went to Samoa and paid homage to Robert Louis Stevenson, a writer who inspired me in childhood.  Samoa, the first of travel adventures I’d dreamed about and promised to visit ‘one day’.

On this Trans-Siberian trip, a teenage dream will be realised and  I’ll pay homage to another favourite writer, Dostoevsky whose book Crime And Punishment, I regard as one of the top ten influences in my life. Like RLS and a few others, Dostoevsky gave me the desire to be a writer.

I’ll also be visiting the Orkney and Shetland islands, another long-held dream and the home of the wonderful writer and poet George Mackay-Brown.

Like Hillary Clinton – I aim high!

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When I’m in holiday mode, perhaps I’ll rediscover the joy and spontaneity I’ve lost and succumb to the mystical process of mind linking together random observations, thoughts, dreams and sudden ideas into storylines and poems.

Sea-Sawing  2
Mairi Neil

When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
heartbeat slows, breathing even, steps linger,
imagination sparked as dreams awaken.
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
shells crunch underfoot, sand soft or solid,
seagulls whirl and twirl their aerial dance.
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
blueness stretches to meet blueness or
stormy grey prances with white caps,
the horizon a promise of somewhere else.
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
worries, fears, a bad day assuaged –
this too will pass a mantra of healing and rebirth
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed.

Playfulness Is Not Out Of The Question

My first published poems were for children and I’ve always been attracted to manipulating words for fun. Perhaps my creative journey needs to return where it began!

I know poems don’t have to rhyme, in fact in some poetry circles it’s almost a criminal offence to write what they consider ‘doggerel’ aka anything with a rhyme. However, I love playing with words, love puns and absurdity.

Sea-Sawing 3
Mairi Neil

I must go down to the sea today
to see the waves and splash
I must go into the sea today
salt water will cure my rash!
The sea has healing powers –
that’s what Mum told me
so, don’t take Nature for granted –
especially the magnificent sea.

You can play in the ocean,
swim, sail, and even water ski
it’s such a wonderful playground
so, always look after the sea.
Don’t pollute the water
home to creatures great and small
because if you listen carefully
you’ll hear the mermaids call…

Here’s to rejuvenation and a renewal of purpose or perhaps I’ll return from my journey and decide to knit and craft – reminders of a lovely period in my life when the girls attended a Steiner school and we immersed our lives in all things natural.

Time will tell.

… what we call the Creative Process is in no way limited to art or to individual acts of creating something. It is in fact, a large ongoing movement in our lives, a force that has its own will and its own purpose, and which we manifest on many levels but in definite sequences… a profoundly sacred process… visible in all aspects of my life…

Burghild Nina Holzer 1993.