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?

 

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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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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.

 

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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?

 

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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

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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.

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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.”

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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.

 

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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.

 

No Way But This, In Search of Paul Robeson, by Jeff Sparrow

In memory of my father who would be 95 today. He loved Paul Robeson and we played Ol’ Man River at Dad’s funeral. I grew up hearing stories about this wonderful man’s life, voice, and commitment to social justice.

This is a fantastic review by Lisa Hill – and here is the cover of one of the records I heard Dad play so often.

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ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

There have been some distractions on the domestic front chez moi, so this review may not do this marvellous book justice…

Jeff Sparrow’s biography of Paul Robeson is great reading, even if you have never heard of Paul Robeson.  The blurb actually says that Robeson is one of the 20th century’s most accomplished but forgotten figures – but surely not?  Could this voice really be forgotten?

His performance of ‘The Song of the Volga Boatman’ is electrifying:

But Paul Robeson, superstar of the early 20th century that he was, was not just an extraordinary bass singer.  His father the Reverend William Drew Robeson had been a slave and he was ambitious for his son.  He saw to it that Paul transcended the institutional racism all around him under the Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation in America until 1965.  Paul became the third ever African-American student at Rutgers University, and he graduated with both academic…

View original post 1,053 more words

Walking, Writing, Wellbeing, And Inspiration

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Most people want a safe and attractive neighbourhood and will get up-in-arms if it is threatened – the NIMBY (not in my backyard) factor, yet their relationship with the local surrounds can often be like the adoration Sir Robert Menzies expressed for Queen Elizabeth 11 in the 1960s “I did but see her passing by and yet I love her till I die.”

In our community, most people travel by car. It’s easy to become disconnected from the immediate neighbourhood and cling to what you think is there.

Changes may go unnoticed until too late, validating the observation ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.’

Walk Your Neighbourhood, Know It, Own It!

While many places have been romanticised as wonderful places to hike or take a walk, I find my local area in Mordialloc just as beautiful as many mentioned in tourist brochures.

I don’t need to travel to walk by the sea along a wonderful foreshore, enjoy a park, or tour streets with well-kept and interesting gardens.

All of these attractions are within walking distance of my house, Mordialloc Railway Station or Mordialloc Main Street – and I’m sure there are similar attractions in suburbs all the way down to Frankston and onto the Peninsula, and up towards the city.

In my street, regardless of the season, council workers do a great job maintaining a lovely display outside a local hall where community groups like Kingston U3A meet regularly.

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Although, it’s not always roses! Vigilance is needed to protect what we have and that’s why walking is important.

We can never assume things will remain the same – whether it’s the neighbourhood or our health – nothing should be taken for granted.

Melbourne is growing. Development is a huge issue with streetscapes changing rapidly as apartment blocks, town houses and units replace the traditional family home on a quarter acre block. The resulting increase in traffic and limited parking often the biggest issue people complain about.

The population is increasing, people need somewhere to live and will flock to desirable areas – especially places like Mordialloc in the south-eastern suburbs bordering Port Phillip Bay.

If councils don’t handle the transition and changes carefully and sensibly, the ambience and advantages people have moved to the area to enjoy will be lost. The natural beauty and good life people seek will disappear.

State Governments and Council Planning authorities are forever changing the rules about who can protest a development, or who needs to know, the height of buildings, the size of apartments etc.

Not everyone accesses the Internet or council websites so communication within a neighbourhood is vital.

Walking the neighbourhood benefits my mental and physical wellbeing but also keeps me aware of what is happening. If there is warning of inappropriate development I can write to my local councillor for an explanation or to protest. (and have done so.)

Sometimes it’s saving a heritage building, trees or vegetation, sometimes it’s reducing the number of apartments to be built or stopping overdevelopment.

Always it is prioritising the neighbourhood’s character and the effect on the people who live here or may want to live here in the future.

Walking Boosts Creativity

The creative effect of absorbing the beauty of the environment also worthwhile. I often walk with a friend. We consciously notice the trees and flowers in gardens, the activities at the foreshore, listen to the birds –  are mindful of the places we walk….

I take my phone because of the camera. Taking pictures helps me remember and can prompt a poem or story later.

I’ve always walked – pushing my children in their strollers, walking them to school, taking the dog for an evening walk. The latter walk often a meditative exercise, alone with thoughts, working through worries and ideas, reflecting on the day.

For me, there is a synchronicity between walking and writing.

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Some Women Writers Who Walked To Reflect & Be Inspired:

(I’ve chosen women in honour of IWD today!)

Virginia Woolf loved solitude and often walked. Perhaps it was genetic because her father, Leslie Stephens, a renowned writer and editor was also a notable walker and mountain climber.

In the biography of Woolf by her nephew, Quentin Bell, he says she’d write in the morning and in the afternoon go for long walks of several miles, usually with her dog. 

Perhaps the walking enabled her to relax and solve any writing problems.

 As a child Woolf summered in St Ives, the inspiration for “To A Lighthouse” in 1926, as she was revising the book, she returned, noting in a letter, ‘all my facts about lighthouses are wrong’.

Domitille Collardey & Alicia Desantes

Agatha Christie loved to walk and think – producing amazing results!

Jane Austen and her sisters took long walks together and the outings gave Jane inspiration to write.

Louisa Mae Alcott was a walker and her companion none other than great thinker Henry David Thoreau who wrote the aptly titled essay Walking. Walking through the natural world a pilgrimage without a destination where he discovered new places to adore.

Mary Oliver, the American poet born in Ohio in 1935, writes poignant observations of the natural world. Nature feeds creativity and Oliver, an avid walker finds inspiration when her feet are moving. Her poems are full of images that come from daily walks near her home.

Jane Goodall moved out of her comfort zone and trekked to places no one in the western world had gone before in her efforts to save the gorillas.

Cheryl Strayed trekked the Pacific Crest Trail and wrote Wild, which later became a movie.

Robyn Davidson trekked 1,700 miles across the Australian outback with four camels and a dog. She wrote Tracks about her epic journey, which was later made into a film.

Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas spent many summers in Bilignin, Ahône Valley 1929, at a villa surrounded by mountains. Stein strolled and wrote letters to Paris about her poodle, Basket – the first of three dogs she gave the name.

Domitille Collardey & Alicia Desantes

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Merlin Coverley wrote The Art of Wandering,  taking the view that walking and writing are one activity. His writer/walkers from the times of Blake, Wordsworth and Rousseau to modern day are concerned with their inner worlds, philosophy and spirituality.

The Twilight Zone
Mairi Neil

At night, just before I fall asleep
I sometimes ponder
on thoughts quite deep.
Why do we exist
and live on earth?
If there is no purpose
why do we give birth?

I can’t believe
some random explosion
put such a balanced world
in motion –
the worm, the fly, the elephant,
the platypus and parasite
interact with precision
like day and night.

The food cycle chain
and each environmental link
intricately interwoven
to really make you think
a clever creator’s hand
has been involved –
that Supreme Being’s identity
still to be solved.

Each religion I know believes
they alone have the answer
destruction wreaked by zealots
a malignant cancer
Allah, Buddah, Krishna, God,
Jesus, the sun, mankind, the trees
human beings worship
one or more, of these.

I have a yearning to know why I’m here
a reason for existing that is clear
I seek an answer to why
the world’s not one
why love and respect’s not mutual
just as we share the moon and the sun.

I’ve not discovered the answer
to explain why we’re here
but to ‘do no harm’ a message
we should all hold dear.
What is my destiny?
My reason for being?
My eyelids droop,
elusive sleep arrives
to stop me from ‘seeing’…

sunflowers by window

 

Walk Your Neighbourhood For a Healthy Body and Healthy Mind

Walking just 20 minutes a day can reduce your risk of premature death by 30%. About 30 minutes of walking a day burns 150 calories, which can help you reach a calorie deficit that leads to weight loss. Walking regulates blood sugar levels, which keeps insulin levels low and diabetes at bay.

https://www.quora.com/What-would-be-the-benefits-of-walking-1-30-to-2-00-hours-daily

A feeling of happiness and contentment can flow from recognising and appreciating where you live and regular walking is a great way to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. You’ll become leaner, firmer, and fitter.

Walking has always been meditative and calming, yet still invigorating to me. Bad moods can be marched out and life put in perspective. 

It’s also a good way to rid yourself of anger – the suggestion ‘go for a walk’ or ‘walk it off’ good advice.

Anytime I need to work through a complex idea or problem, I walk or do something physical while I think.(Yep, even housework!)

Physical activity lets me ‘step aside’ and focus on the ‘real’ world while the thought process continues in the ‘virtual’ sub-conscious world where ideas/problems circulate.

The stresses of life walked out and tumultuous thoughts or emotions replaced by the sounds, smells, and sights of the sensory world of nature.

Keeping active and walking regularly not only helps maintain your weight, but lowers blood pressure, helps build healthy bones and muscles, and can improve “good” cholesterol.

The benefits aren’t just physical. Reports show that those who exercise regularly sleep better, have improved concentration and feel less stressed.

Life will be healthier and happier.

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Towards the end of her life, when my mother visited and she couldn’t walk far, I’d hire a wheelchair from the chemist and take her for ‘walks’ around the neighbourhood.

We’d go down to the beach cafe and have a cuppa while I pointed out changes to the foreshore, or we’d discuss the changes to shops in Main Street since her last visit.

Perhaps in the future, my girls will be wheeling me in a wheelchair where once I wheeled them in a pram!

Walking isn’t just putting one foot in front of the other. It can be a way to socialise, to clear the brain, prevent mental breakdown, get healthier and extend life, solve – or ignore – problems, experience the world around in all its glory, beat insomnia and find a purpose.

Many of the most accomplished and creative people throughout history have also found walking to be an integral part of their daily routines and key to their success as artists, creators, writers, musicians, thinkers, and human beings.

The author, Charles Dickens, who suffered depression went for long walks. After writing from 9 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon, he’d walk – 20- or 30-miles being routine. He suffered insomnia and would prowl London’s streets until dawn. His friends worried, he walked obsessively but the habit worked!  His prolific writing achievements of more than a dozen major and well-regarded novels, several short story collections, a few plays, and non-fiction books.

He said if he couldn’t walk “far and fast,” he would “explode and perish” from the psychological burden of remaining still. He found writing difficult and so walking was a relief. It probably saved his sanity.

His characters also do a lot of walking – perhaps he followed the mantra write what you know –  a character in Our Mutual Friend, spends hours walking around London after dark, sometimes all night. Other characters walk from one town to another, which probably occurred in those days before motorised transportation.

Where you choose to walk can boost your sense of wellbeing. Strolls or hikes in the countryside, close to nature, can have a restorative effect at the end of a hectic working week but so can a walk around your neighbourhood.

Going for a stroll with a friend or family is a great way to spend time together while keeping active.

When you wander daily around your locale, you start to look at it properly and notice its devastating beauty. There’s the ‘naturally’ weird:

shaggy tree parkdalelooks like elephant feet

And the  sweet:

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the unusual or  contrary (yes it is a rabbit he’s walking on a leash!):

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There’s architectural loveliness,  unusual plants, unfortunate graffiti and stylish landscaping.

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A walk is NEVER boring.  You don’t have to live next to the greatest park to experience the benefit of walking in the fresh air. Urban areas can give the same effect – there are always tiny local parks, laneways and byways to explore.

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Walking is cheap and doable – you can even walk to music or listen to a book if you have headphones and an iPod.

Does walking figure in your life, help your creativity?

Where do you walk? Has it inspired poetry or prose?

 

A Day For Blowing Bubbles

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from Pinterest

What’s the Canberra Bubble?

A phrase frequently used by media commentators is “Canberra Bubble”, a disparaging reference to our elected representatives in federal parliament. It suggests they are disconnected from the rest of the population, not just by distance, but by reality.

When buzzwords are introduced into our everyday lexicon they’re often repeated without anyone challenging their accuracy, knowing what is actually meant, or if it is a reasonable description.

The phrase “Canberra Bubble” frequently used when federal politicians from both major parties seem more focused on leadership squabbles and factional alignments than policies to benefit the majority of the Australian population.

However, to be fair to federal politicians, they do put their hands up to enter parliament and the journey to winning an election and staying in power probably means like the most of us, they juggle several bubbles.

Question Google and you are taken to Quora and people from all over the world give you their meaning of ‘living in a bubble’.

Common themes are: isolating yourself, being shy or introverted, being naive, or the other extremes, being a victim or thinking you are superior!

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And who could forget the story of the Boy in the Bubble?

Others suggest not caring and understanding, or forgetting what is happening in the ‘outside’ world, but the consensus is “living in a bubble means you do not get out of your comfort zone.”

We live in our own bubble most of the time

My main focus is immediate family (my daughters), extended family (siblings), close friends and neighbours, my students, and then various acquaintances who pop in and out of my life.

My bubble is usually pleasant. Life is enriching, experimental but safe, and most often full of joy. Reminiscent of playing with the lovely soap bubbles Mum made for us in childhood. (And I made for my children.)

Who can forget the excitement of dipping a twisted piece of wire into soapy water and blowing the thin film of soap water into the air?

Wonderful memories of competing to produce the largest bubble – and see how long it would last without popping.

Sometimes chasing the hollow spheres to catch them or hope they’d land gently on your hand; marvelling at the iridescent surface and kaleidoscopic colour as light wove its way in uneven waves and rainbows.

forever-blowing-bubbles

Of course, bubbles burst or we blow them away and so yesterday I determined to venture from my comfort zone and attend a Workshop for Freelance Writers and Journalists at Melbourne University.

Into a place where in the past the term ‘ivory tower’in place of “bubble” has been used to disparage academia.

It is fashionable to sneer at elites with President Trump leading the charge but where would society be without the years of dedicated research and scholarship provided by academics?

The workshop I attended, a case in point, provided by the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the Graduate School of Humanities & Social Sciences for FREE!

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This wonderful opportunity to improve skills and knowledge, professional development for me, as a teacher of writing and as a blogger. I took copious notes before the facilitators agreed to send copies of their slides, so I will share the information at a later date when the slides arrive and what I learned can be more accurately passed on.

(I always have difficulty deciphering my notes. Dad used to say, ‘a trained spider’ could write clearer than me.)

A Trip Down Memory Lane

The day was full of déjà vu because I worked as an Admin Officer for the Student Union for 4 years and was reminded of that fabulous time the moment I stepped on campus through Gate 10.

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My heart lifted at the new signage. I worked at the university in 2008 and remember crowding into a room in Union House with a group of employees and students to watch Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologise to the Stolen Generations.

I recall fighting back tears as someone who had been at the Aboriginal Embassy in the 1970s. Tried to imagine how important this recognition of our blemished and brutal past would be to those directly affected. Another crucial step towards true reconciliation with our First People.

When I was greeted on South Lawn by the familiar colours of an UMSU marquee in the distance I felt I’d been teleported into the past! 

The student union changed its name to UMSU and rebranded while I was there in the mid-2000s. (There had been a turbulent history before that and the aftermath made for an interesting settling in period for me.) 

Two seagulls pecked at the edges of a water feature, their obesity evidence of rich pickings on a campus with plenty of eateries and picnic areas to mine. I paused and watched the birds. The campus silent and empty of the usual hordes of students. Memories crowded and years of absence fell away. My feet automatically strode towards Arts West.

Melbourne University has one of the most attractive campuses in Australia, rich in history. The buildings maintained and modernised with deference to heritage and character.

I discovered another new addition, bronze plaques commemorating academics and professional staff who have made an outstanding and enduring contribution to the University community. These awarded and embedded in 2014 along the Professor’s Walk. I took a couple snapshots to remind myself to return one day and do the Historic Campus Tour. 

There is also a new cafe – always a welcome addition for hungry students without culinary skills and just learning to live independently!

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Before the workshop started I raced along to Union House to grab a much-needed coffee. Wow – more memories – I remembered the voices of angry students protesting PM John Howard’s introduction of voluntary union contributions in an attempt to silence radicals and destroy the power of collective bargaining. 

Unfortunately, it meant the destruction of a lot of clubs and societies on campus funded by union dues – activities that made campus life worthwhile and memorable. That was a long hard fight and the first time I’d heard of Barnaby Joyce, the current leader of the National Party. 

I typed up his telephone interview with the editors of Farrago, the student newspaper – Barnaby was against VSU because he knew it would disadvantage country campuses.

Who Works Early On Saturday Morning At A University?

A cheerful man asks me, ‘What can I do you for?’

‘Flat white coffee, please?’
‘Salt and pepper, tomato sauce, a dash of engine oil?’

We laugh in unison.

‘Oh, a dash of whisky – it’ll wake me up. My grandfather called it his heart starter.’

He turns to his mate at the coffee machine with a grin as wide as the ocean.

‘I like this woman,’ then as he took my money,’You’ve made my day. I’m going to share that story. Great excuse!’

Another lady standing beside me waits for her coffee. We introduce ourselves – yes, on an almost empty campus early Saturday morning, we are going to the same place.

Sandra and I both grateful these cheery blokes have their coffee machine fired up. We agree hospitality workers deserve penalty rates!

And so do the academics, administration staff and security waiting for us…

We Were Warned – The Workshop Starts On Time!

In the lecture theatre, I hurriedly sit beside Marilyn, a retired BBC radio producer who has joined her son to live in Melbourne.

We share many stories throughout the day, lunch at the refurbished cafes in the Royal Melbourne Hospital precinct where I hear about her groundbreaking and controversial documentary for Amnesty’s 50th Anniversary, a segment for Stephen Fry on Aussie English and her involvement in U3A where she has organised a booked out talk by Don Watson of Weasel Words fame.  

What a coup!

On my other side, I whisper hello to Lucy who writes for australianlighthouses.com. A labour of love. She confides to giving up a well-paid job in the public service to become a freelance writer. She’s already had successes with travel articles for The Age: where to eat in Paris and a feature on taking her son to Japan.

To say, I felt decidedly out of my journalistic and freelancing depth, is an understatement, but we were attending to learn from experts with even more incredible pedigrees of journalism, editing and publishing:

  • Dr Margaret Simons
  • Dr Denis Muller
  • Simon Mann
  • Jo Chandler

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The subjects covered were:

  • The Pitch – how to write a succinct attractive pitch to hook editors
  • Interview skills – how to prepare, conduct and write a great interview
  • Law and Ethics – common pitfalls and risks to finances (defamation), credibility and peace of mind
  • Structure – how to construct a standard 1000 word piece for publication

The sessions packed with information that the hundreds who attended absorbed. The questions and detailed answers covered almost everything you could think of in the field of journalism.

The information I found most fascinating, and which generated a debate afterwards over networking coffee in the foyer, was Dr Denis Muller’s lecture on ethics, or lack thereof when people chase a story regardless of the law and common decency.

Dr Muller is a leading Australian ethicist and has written Journalism Ethics for the Digital Age, Scribe 2013 and Media Ethics and Disasters: Lessons from the Black Saturday Bushfires, Melbourne University Press. 2011

He mentioned in passing that the DPP in Victoria sent a letter to all media outlets in Melbourne the day after the terrible tragedy in Bourke Street, warning them to be careful not to jeopardise the trial and conviction of the accused and be guilty of Contempt of Court.

We have the history in Victoria where a paedophile priest was given a lesser sentence because radio broadcaster and now Senator Derryn Hinch went public with information that jeopardised the accused’s right to a fair trial. He was charged with contempt again over another case.

Fortunately, the majority of journalists take the law and ethics more seriously.

I farewelled my newfound friends and walked slowly back to the tram stop in Swanston Street to head home. The pleasant walk a respite from the less than comfortable chair and the brain food to be digested.

Writing fodder abounded – but more for my inner creative writer!

A wedding party was having photographs. A beautiful visual feast and fun to watch as the photographers tried to be creative with poses.

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I admired and took a closer look at a couple of sculptures. There are major works by 23 sculptors dotted around the campus, spanning centuries and countries. Many were gifted for safe keeping.

James Gilbert was born in Dublin and immigrated to Victoria in 1854. This fine example of Gilbert’s work, Atlantes was originally sited in Melbourne’s central business district. In Greek mythology, the giant Atlas supported the sky. Architecturally, Atlantes are male figures or half-figures used in place of columns to support a porch-like structure and are frequently portrayed straining under an enormous weight.

This pair originally formed part of the ornate arched entrance to the Colonial Bank of Australasia on the corner of Elizabeth and Little Collins Streets in the 1880s, and remained there until the building’s demolition in 1932.

Atlantes was salvaged and presented to the university where it was re-erected to form the porch of the Old Physiology building, which in 1970 was also demolished. Atlantes has been in its current location since 1972 and is classified by the National Trust of Australia (Victoria)

Untitled (Charity being kind to the poor) c.1893 

Designed by Austrian artist Victor Tilgner and cast at the Imperial Art Foundry of Vienna, by sculptor Edward W Raht, (Charity being kind to the poor) originally adorned one of Melbourne’s landmark buildings—the massive seven-storey Equitable Life Assurance Society Limited headquarters on the corner of Collins and Elizabeth Streets.

Mounted on the red granite portico, the bronze statue was considered ‘the crowning piece’ of the ornate structure. It symbolised the themes of protection and shelter, typical of sculpture commissioned by insurance companies to adorn their corporate buildings at the time.

Although structurally sound, by the late 1950s the building was considered uneconomical and was demolished. (Charity being kind to the poor) was presented to the University of Melbourne in 1959 by the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society Limited who had purchased the building in 1923.

This memorial, of Stawell stone, was built in 1926 to honour those in the University who served or died in World War 1. It originally stood at the head of the main drive but was relocated at the angle of the Law School and Wilson Hall.

I discovered a series of plaques to commemorate WWI and other conflicts, placed in 2014 beside the University’s war memorial. Perhaps funded by the Gallipoli Centenary Fund, in a similar way to Williamstown Council and their website featuring men, including my uncle, who joined up and died on active service.

I hope people take the time to read them.

On a brighter note, I also discovered another innovation since I left, a Community Garden. 

A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.

Gertrude Jekyll

This quiet oasis a delightful discovery amongst concrete buildings.

The aims:

  • grow food as sustainably and organically as possible
  • inspire people to grow their own food
  • provide a place for learning about healthy food
  • show an alternative to how public space can be used
  • create a strong sense of community here at Melbourne University

A fantastic concept, which is flourishing.

Green relief in grey claustrophobia. The list of plants varied: Granny Smith Apples, rhubarb, pumpkin, various herbs, orange pippin, chocolate lily, native viola, Mydyim berry, and yams.

And from the practical to the ornamental – rows of gorgeous crepe myrtles in their spectacular colourful glory line the path on the way out of campus.

Just the other day, one of my students (88-year-old Edna) told the story of going out in a recent storm with hammer, nails and string to rescue a baby crepe myrtle that had just started to flower and had been flattened in the wind.

The crepe myrtle flowers are wonderful – each petal is like crepe paper,  wrinkly and crinkly, and that’s where it gets its name. They can be grown as a standard, a miniature, a low-growing spreading plant, a small shrub, a small tree and even a large tree.

Look at their beauty – they are worth rescuing!

Crepe myrtles flourish in Australia. They like a hot and dry climate and transplant well from a pot. Established with plenty of water, to ensure the root system develops, they are remarkably drought-tolerant.  All varieties provide striking colour in summer, wonderful autumn foliage and in winter have beautiful, ornate bark.

These are all newly planted since I worked at the university.

Finally, I pass large tubs grouped in the definitive and positive ‘rule of three’ and recall poems I wrote years ago when I travelled into the city daily, being very much a part of the “university bubble” – or should that be “ivory tower”?

Shadows
Mairi Neil

The plaintive song echoes
in the university grounds
as students hurry home
past skeletal branches
of winter trees
hosting the bird’s lament

mournful echoes
of dinosaur dynasties
amid the whirr of bicycle wheels,
tapping footsteps
ringtones
mobile conversations
iPod seclusion

wistful whistles announce dusk
become full-throated celebrations
melodious calls to rest
as lights douse,
classroom doors close,
shadows deepen,
and the campus empties

crowded trams trundle by
bathed in artificial sunlight
tall grey buildings reach
for a star embroidered sky
this call of birded tongue
conjures ghosts
of long forgotten species.

Melbourne Central, July 2007
Mairi Neil

Woollen scarf as fashion dictates
the student holds a radical newspaper aloft
bold black print and strident voice
denouncing government indifference

Business suits brush by
polished leather squeaks
the train home awaits
high heels click
trails of perfume dissipate
the train home awaits

From the shadows a bundle of rags
morphs into a man
murmurs drowned by
social justice warriors
his trembling hand and
cardboard begging sign ignored

Another day in Melbourne
polystyrene cup left empty
government indifference
a mirror of society…

Do you live in a bubble? Perhaps burst or blow bubbles…

Who said the more things change, the more they stay the same?

Hidden Figures – A Review

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I went to a special screening of the film Hidden Figures at the Nova Cinema Sunday night.

Hidden Figures celebrates the African-American women whose calculations enabled the Moon landings, and were then forgotten for 40 years. All profits from the event go to Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equality (URGE), an organisation led by women of colour that fights for reproductive justice in poor, and particularly black, communities. It is on the front line of the struggle against Trump. This is the first of hopefully many events to raise funds for those resisting the right-wing tide.

The event raised $1500 – a great achievement because it was organised at short notice and solely through social media. It didn’t take long to fill the cinema.

NASA’s “Colored Computers”

Hidden Figures is entertaining, empowering, and an all round excellent film. And as most of the advertising hype suggests, it is a story long overdue in the telling, focusing on the journey of three clever women: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.

inspirational-black-history-month-quotes

I consider myself well-read and I have a double history major, yet I never knew about the “colored computers” as they were referred to by NASA.

Before IBM mainframes took over NASA’s number-crunching duties, the organization’s “computers” wore skirts. While an all-male team of engineers performed the calculations for potential space travel, women mathematicians checked their work, playing a vital role at a moment when the United States was neck-and-neck with (and for a time, running behind) the Soviets in the space race.

In tandem with the space race between America and Russia is the burgeoning and increasingly effective civil rights movement. Clips from real life news broadcasts and newspaper headlines are shown and there is some re-enactment of protests, but the film’s focus is detailing the achievements of three women who were crucial to the success of NASA’s program. They also trail-blazed for not only African-American rights but rights for all women to be treated as intelligent as their male counterparts.

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The Evils of Segregation

The film, set in the early 1960s shows the struggle for desegregation being fought state by state. Like Apartheid South Africa, coloured people are barred, separated, and herded by the predominant white authorities:

  • coloured drinking fountains,
  • coloured waiting rooms,
  • coloured toilets,
  • coloured canteens
  • coloured offices,
  • coloured counters in cafes and shops,
  • and of course coloured seats at the back of the bus despite the brave actions of Rosa Parkes.

This segregation appalling when seen on the screen, especially regarding the effect on innocent children. It’s almost impossible to understand what it must have been like – and it is not that long ago!

Thank goodness we have films like Hidden Figures and Selma to remind us of our common humanity and the evils of bigotry and hate.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

At NASA’s Langley, in the 1940s and 1950s, the women were split into two pools – the East computing unit for white women, and the West computing unit for black women. This segregation a requirement of Virginia state law that continued into the 1960s.

The three African-American women heroes were crusaders for both feminism and civil rights in segregated Virginia and helped put an American into orbit, which ultimately led to America beating Russia in the race to put a man on the moon.

NASA at least recognised the ability of women to work in the field, but in 1962 the “colored computers” were not afforded the same rights or treated with the same respect as their white male colleagues.

The detailing of overt and ingrained racism some of the most powerful and poignant scenes in the movie. Although the focus is always on the contribution and efforts to achieve a successful launch into space, the three women challenge and defeat prejudice and unfairness in the workplace.

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Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, was the first black supervisor in charge of West Computing and is one of the main characters in the film.  One of the first computer programmers when tasks from the engineers came in, she would allocate the work and show her team what they needed to do. Her ingenuity and intelligence and determination to be ahead of the game and yet protect her team, absolutely awesome.

She often goes toe to toe with her white manager, Vivian played to condescending perfection by Kirsten Dunst who has a face you itch to slap. As a woman, Vivian recognises discrimination yet refuses to accept her own attitude and behaviour as racist, not supporting Dorothy’s right to the title and pay of supervisor and saying such lines as:

“Y’all should be thankful you have jobs at all”

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Katherine Johnson played in the film by Taraji P. Henson, was a brilliant geometry expert who worked as a human computer – a person who computes – she was a child prodigy and calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space.

In the film, there is also a scene where astronaut John Glenn asks for Katherine to check the calculations for returning safely to earth before he gets into the spacecraft.

NASA’s chief historian, Bill Barry, explains that the film, which has been nominated for a slew of awards, depicts many real events from their lives. “One thing we’re frequently asked,” he says, “is whether or not John Glenn actually asked for Katherine Johnson to ‘check the numbers.'” The answer is yes: Glenn, the first American in orbit and later, at the age of 77, the oldest man in space, really did ask for Johnson to manually check calculations generated by IBM 7090 computers (the electronic kind) churning out numbers at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Though the film shows Glenn asking for Johnson’s approval from the launch pad, she was actually called in well before the launch. Calculating the output for 11 different variables to eight significant digits took a day and a half. Her calculations matched the computer’s results exactly. Not only did her conclusions give Glenn and everyone else confidence in the upcoming launch, but they also proved the critical computer software was reliable.

When she is transferred into the all white domain in the West Computing Wing the tension and underlying resentment from one male worker, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons plays the stereotypical subdued white collar racist to perfection)  is palpable. It is the scenes in the operational room before and during the space launches that provide the most tension in the movie.

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Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, was a mathematician and aerospace engineer. She petitions a judge to let her take the necessary night courses in the all-white high school that will allow her to apply for an open engineering position at NASA.

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Hidden Figures is based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly: Hidden Figures, The Untold Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, a TIME magazine top 10 nonfiction book of 2016.

We’ve had astronauts, we’ve had engineers—John Glenn, Gene Kranz, Chris Kraft. Those guys have all told their stories. Now it’s the women’s turn.

Margot Lee Shetterly

There is plenty of humour in the film as well as a great soundtrack. The fashions – from beehive 60s hairdos to colourful and impractical stilettos and skirts and cardigans detailed to perfection to brighten the sets. There are classic gas guzzling cars too.

Real footage of the times from speeches by JFK, shots of Dr Martin Luthor King Jr, and scenes of space launch successes and disasters all used to good effect in the film.

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Two days after the United States announced its intention to launch an artificial satellite, on July 31, 1956, the Soviet Union announced its intention to do the same.

Sputnik 1 was launched on October 4, 1957, beating the United States and stunning people all over the world.

  • October 4, 1957, First artificial satellite – First signals from space Sputnik 1
  • November 3, 1957, First dog in orbit ( Laika) Sputnik 2
  • April 12, 1961, First human spaceflight (Yuri Gagarin)

The footage of the Russian efforts as reported by world news reminded me of my Dad singing a ditty about Yuri Gargarin. Britain wasn’t that involved with the space race and so the Russian success was probably looked upon with more admiration on Scotland’s side of the Atlantic!

YURI GAGARIN

Chorus
Oh dear, Yuri Gagarin,
He flew tae the moon when it looked like a farthing,
He said tae the boys at the moment of parting
“Ah’m juist gaun away for the Fair”

Now inside the ship he lay down like a hero,
The doors were sealed up and the countdown was near-o
Ten-nine-eight-seven-six-five-four-three-two-one-zero
An Yuri went up in the air

Now when he took off he was shook tae the marra
He circled the poles and he saw the Sahara,
He gave them a wave as he passed over Barra
The day he went up in the air

Now when he went up it was just aboot dawning,
The time when the rest of the world wis still yawning
Then Yuri returned to the land he wis born in
Withoot even turning a hair

When he came tae London they tried the saft pedal,
A wee bowler hat and a rolled-up umbreddle
But the foundrymen went an’ they struck him a medal
An gied it tae him at the fair

This song is in praise of the first man to go into space and orbit the earth, the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, on 12th April 1961.

The song was written in the vernacular by Glasgow actor and writer Roddy McMillan to the tune of ‘Johnny’s So Long At The Fair’ and has been published in a collection of traditional and new Scots songs as a resource for primary schools, Gallus Publishing  Great Britain, 2013.

Praise Long Overdue

Hidden Figures acknowledges the commitment of all those involved in the pioneer space program, including for the first time the contributions of the African-American mathematicians, engineers and computing experts.

Poetic licence sees the sequence of real events compressed and Kevin Costner plays the head of the Space Task group with dramatic flair, along with his crewcut, conservative collar and tie, and constant gum chewing; he’s a man of the times.

This is an important movie and it will trigger many memories for baby boomers – most of us were sent home from school in 1969 to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. In many of my writing classes that day looms large in memory but I guarantee no one knew about the amazing Hidden Figures.

I hope you enjoy the film as much as I did. I’ll leave you with an apt quote from the first man to go into space…

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Manchester By The Sea – a Review

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Last weekend, I went to see the recently released, Manchester By The Sea, at the Palace Cinema, Brighton with my daughters, Anne and Mary Jane.

Anne has been a fan of the actress Michelle Williams since she was a teenager and has a collection of her movies. When one is released we always try and see it because the subject matter and execution of Indie films are usually more enriching than the Hollywood blockbusters and populist ‘bums on seats’ fillers.

It’s the difference between enjoying reading a lightweight novel, but the stereotypical characters and plot forgettable compared to a novel, where the characters live with you for a lifetime, the story challenges or introduces a different perspective on life.

I want stories that tug at your heart and soul before adding another dimension to what it means to be human.

And there are so many scenes in this film that are touches of brilliance; they add to an already memorable story and characters.

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Michelle Williams plays Randi, Lee’s ex-wife and doesn’t disappoint in Manchester by The Sea – she has been nominated for the best supporting actress award.  The few scenes she has, and a gut-wrenching one, in particular – engages the audience the way good acting should – a total suspension of disbelief.

We are with her, feel her love, anger, pain, sadness, joy, guilt and grief. The whole gamut of emotions.

The logline of the movie is simplistic  “An uncle is asked to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies.” There are many stories in the subtext of this screenplay.

This is a film about broken lives and how easily tragedy and change can happen to any of us. It is a story exploring the journey and stages of grief and the effects of sorrow – different for everyone – especially if it compounds on other bereavements.

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Writer and director Kenneth Lonergan has won multiple awards – and I can see why – this film is a powerful story, but he has done a wonderful job of showing not telling, the pacing and tension breath-taking and balanced like any good page-turning novel. 

His choice of casting excellent with Casey Affleck playing a broody, moody Lee Chandler struggling to come to terms with inner demons. The first few scenes in the less salubrious suburbs of Boston sets the tone of the movie and reveals Lee’s personality.

In modern parlance, he has issues. 

He’s grumpy, socially disconnected, drinks alone and has violent outbursts yet he’s young, physically fit, reasonably good-looking and a competent handyman employed as a janitor for a landlord too cheap to pay tradesmen and prepared to ignore building regulations.

For a minimum wage, Lee Chandler does everything from cleaning, plumbing, electrical repairs, moving furniture, clearing snow, and changing light bulbs while demanding tenants treat him as if he’s invisible, beneath them, or to blame for their maintenance woes. Who wouldn’t be moody and pissed off?

But we sense something more to Lee’s surliness and brooding aloneness, especially when after a bout of solitary drinking in a local bar, he explodes into an inexplicable verbal then physical assault on two strangers.

We are intrigued.

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A phone call leads to a mercy dash to a hospital over an hour’s drive away. The pace of the story picks up as Lee is catapulted into a family crisis.

Through flashbacks, we start to piece together the life Lee Chandler left – the familial bonds, the close-knit community, the love for his brother who has just died. The unravelling of his past explains his choice of a life away from the Massachusetts fishing village where his family have worked for generations.

And when the full story comes to light, it is one of those moments, if it was a book, you would place it on your lap, close your eyes and struggle to get your breathing and blood pressure back to normal.  

On screen, these emotionally engaging moments are powerful indeed.

All the important storytelling elements keep the audience engaged with the use of scenery as clever metaphors. The movie begins in winter and ends in spring.

There is a brilliant scene where Lee is arranging his brother’s funeral but because it is winter the burial (they are Catholic) must be delayed, the snow covered ground too hard and the cost of heavy machinery too expensive. When Lee and his nephew Patrick leave the funeral parlour unhappy with the reality Lee can’t find his car because they’ve both forgotten where it was parked. Their actions and dialogue removing the angst and sentimentality often seen in other movies but so believable.

Anyone who has been left numb by grief will relate to trying to cope with the bizarre situations that occur as you go through the motions of dealing with death and funerals, especially if there are fractured family relationships (Patrick’s mother is still alive but left years before), complications of  beliefs (Patrick is not religious), cost and tradition.

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Lee struggles with coming to terms with the unwanted burden his brother has placed on him – legal guardianship of his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick. The relationship between Lee and Patrick, the adjustments and revelations provides much-needed and natural humour as well as penetrating insight into teenage grief.

The scenes where Patrick is trying to consummate a long-standing relationship with a girlfriend and even involves his Uncle Lee to keep an overprotective mother busy are hilarious.

My girls and I discussed the irony of wanting to see a film where one of the main characters is a teenager dealing with the death of his father. They were thirteen and sixteen when their father died.

However,  afterwards, as we discussed the movie they both agreed that the portrayal of Patrick’s reactions, the reactions of his friends, and scenes where his anger explodes are spot on and will deeply resonate with young people who have had to cope with a similar tragedy.

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There is a richness to this film with its multiple layers of stories and character development. Several scenes will haunt me for a long time because my life has been touched by grief – death by accident, death by illness and disease, the horrific shock of suicide and the natural process of ageing. It is strangely comforting to reflect that there’s a commonality with people from a different demographic and different country.

The actors convey real emotion and believability and as Lee Chandler tries to make a go of this new hand he has been dealt, we root for him and really want it to work so that he can be healed too.

(The film begins and ends with scenes on the family fishing boat showing a bond between Lee and Patrick although the events occur eight years apart.)

This story of broken lives reminds us how easily lives can be shattered:

  • a lapsed moment of concentration
  • a bad or rash decision
  • being in the wrong place at the wrong time
  • and good old Murphy’s Law – anything that can go wrong will

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We can’t always distance ourselves from the past, we can’t always beat our demons but we can be open to love and just as chance tragedy can change the direction of your life so can a random spark of friendship and love.

Sometimes we just need a reason to reconnect with that healing journey…

If you go to see Manchester By The Sea, I’ll be interested to hear your impressions and insights.

Visually the film is appealing – Manchester Massachusetts, in the United States, is known for scenic beaches and vista points. 24 miles from Boston, at the 2010 census, the town population was 5,136.

Tonight I’m attending a fundraiser for Hidden Figures – a very different film! I’ll review that in a few days!