What happened in Christchurch last Friday was so horrific, it is difficult to express in words. Sorrow, a lump of marble pressing on my heart.
I can sympathise and empathise but any personal response to such a violent, hateful act seems totally inadequate.
Paralysis almost instantaneous – horror seems to happen a lot, news of violence and terror of varying scales, reported on every media platform but this time because it was multiple deaths close to home, it seemed to hurt more.
I’ve known grief but can’t imagine the immense suffering of the dead and injured in the shootings at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, and the effect on the wider Islamic community.
The process of writing and friends in the writing community, along with close family, have always been a solace – being able to write a way of working through trauma towards healing.
However, in the last few days, an inner voice and feeling of fatigue told me writing is pointless in the face of so much hate, violence and ignorance because the people who hold such angry and irrational views won’t read or care what I write.
Perhaps expressing how I feel will not be helpful.
However, in recent days, along with expressions of shared grief and love, there has been acknowledgement and reflection that hatred and extremism do not operate in a vacuum.
There have been thousands of words spoken and written by others expressing the belief that in private and public conversations we can, and indeed must, do better, unless we want to see a repeat and even an escalation of atrocities.
The more of us who publicly support those who need it and condemn the aggressors and hate-mongers, the better.
We can watch our words – think before we speak because the childhood rhyme of “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will neverhurtme”although well-meaning is patently untrue for the many people who suffer abuse and vilification every day because of their colour, ethnicity, sexual orientation, race, religious faith, country of origin or socioeconomic status.
Society seems too ready to marginalise groups of people and too slow at being inclusive and kind.
We can modify behaviour – our own definitely, but also encourage others to be kinder and more welcoming – and many people do. Participating in Harmony Day celebrations is a good start but there are many organisations and events available throughout Australia.
The terrorist filmed his ranting rampage
to maximise hatred and fear
stunned we recoiled in horror
but amid the shock
recognition and reflection…
Who made the bullets he fired?
Who marginalised and vilified
the targets of this cowardly attack?
Who formed, repeated and spread
words of hate seeking to fracture
and divide humanity?
Thoughts and prayers are not enough
The Scales of Justice seesaw
Responsibility Guilt Shame
Tolerance Acceptance Love
Belonging must be felt
and welcoming arms outstretched.
World history and experience proves the power of words. That’s why manifestos are issued by demigods, tyrants, megalomaniacs and political parties of every persuasion.
Words of philosophy and faith with the aim of spreading tolerance and peace can be uplifting and healing but words can be dangerous if used to deceive by spreading misinformation, bigotry and reinforcing harmful stereotypes.
Writers must take responsibility and consider who will read our words even although we can’t control how a reader interprets what we write.
Some may argue that rules and responsibility are for those writing about and reporting facts –
researchers must cast their net wide and gather as much information as possible to appear balanced,
journalists must differentiate between report and opinion,
academic language and style should not be emotive, biased or inflammatory.
I believe creative writers have a responsibility too. I may not always get it right but I try to be balanced when writing characters and situations, try to avoid creating or perpetuating harmful stereotypes whether sexist, racist, or ageist.
Will you explore or consider alternative ideas to the mainstream?
How do you portray people of different races?
Are you reinforcing or undermining racial stereotypes?
What roles are you assigning to male and female characters?
Are you reinforcing or undermining gender stereotypes?
Will you write about or relate to contemporary issues?
If representing certain beliefs about people and the world are you doing it honestly?
I’ve posted before about the power of books to move me from my comfort zone. Novels have enlightened and influenced me. Stories can reveal inequity and injustice and counter hatred and ignorance. They can nurture empathy and transform tolerance into acceptance.
Reading books from other cultures and about other cultures should be encouraged from a young age.
This post has been difficult to write and the images and detail of what happened in Christchurch will not be forgotten. They will be compartmentalised like other horrific examples of ‘Man’s inhumanity to man’.
Conversations have started at the highest levels of government to ACT and stop the demonisation of particular religious and ethnic groups and to recognise the harm done under the banner of ‘freedom of speech’.
I’m glad world leaders have promised to do something about limiting the reach or forcing corporations to take responsibility for the social media tools accessed and used to spread messages of hate, division and violence.
And if there is anyone who does not think Islamophobia is not harmful I can relate three examples close to my home and family:
On Friday night, two women who work with one of my daughters caught the tram home. This was a few hours after the shootings in the Christchurch mosques. They were women of colour and a white male sitting across from them shaped his hand into a gun, pointed, and pretended to fire twice.
Shocking as this may seem, this is one of many incidents they have had to deal with over the years. Most of their life they have lived under the hysteria and abuse ‘justified’ by 9/11 and the War on Terror. Rarely do passersby intervene, help or support the victims.
My daughter’s friends stopped reporting incidents to the police because, despite the probability of camera footage and even witnesses, the police are not interested or put any follow up in the too hard basket.
My other daughter stays in touch with a university friend who happens to wear a hijab. The friend’s Facebook posts heart-rending when she notes, ‘It was a good day today, I was only spat on once.’
If this is happening in Melbourne, the world’s most liveable city, and Australia, the lucky country, believe it when public figures tell you they knew it was only a matter of time before there was a massacre like the Christchurch shootings.
On Saturday evening, my daughter was having dinner in a restaurant in Balaclava. When she looked out of the window, she saw a man abuse and grab a Jewish passerby, shove him against the wall and try and grab his Kippah from his head. She jumped up and ran outside but an employee stopped her at the door and said, ‘I’ll go.’ A woman from a nearby shop also went to the victim’s aid. No other diner moved to help and people in the street stared or scurried by.
The rise of anti-semitism is well documented and in the East St Kilda neighbourhood where my daughter lives Swastikas have been daubed on synagogues, schools, shops and fences.
We have said sorry to our First People but there is still not a widespread acknowledgement that this land was invaded and founded on genocide. The Uluru Statement from the Heart was rejected by Prime Minister Turnbull and the current Prime Minister has not changed policy.
Aboriginal Australians know all about abuse, vilification, stereotyping, and marginalisation and yet they have often been the first ones to welcome refugees and migrants into the community.
Whatever actions authorities and all of us take, I hope it is not too little too late.
When I describe myself as a poet, I know there will be plenty of critics and purists to suggest what I produce is not poetry, others may say it is not ‘good’ poetry.
However, creative writing is subjective, as is taste and opinion, so I’m sticking with the label poet, defined in The New Penguin Compact Dictionary as ‘a very imaginative or sensitive person with considerable powers of expression.’
Over the years, learning and teaching a variety of poetic forms, I have built up an armoury of words to express myself, and anyone who knows me well will testify to my imagination and sensitivity – especially when it concerns social justice.
So, poet, I am.
I love poetry – because often you can be succinct and make a point with immediate impact about political or social justice issues.
Reactions can be swift and merciless, but at least it’s a reaction and often starts a much-needed conversation about important social issues.
I do miss my classes for those discussions and the input of wonderful writers with a range of views and life experiences.
Write a Poem You Say (A Triolet)
Writing poems not for the faint-hearted
Words, technique, emotions expected
Whether for the living or dear departed
Writing poems not for the faint-hearted
Sometimes it’s hard just to get started
Brain, heart and hand not connected
Writing poems not for the faint-hearted
Words, technique, emotions expected
The 24 Hour News Cycle
When I was teaching writing, I often used to write a poem at the beginning of the lesson during Splurge – the first 15-20 minutes of writing time set aside to respond to a prompt or write whatever you want a lastream of consciousness.
Many times whatever was in the newspapers or other media occupied my thoughts – like a random comment made by a high profile public figure, on the public purse, who quite frankly should have kept his out-dated thoughts to himself:
#Me Too Movement 2018
Oh, my darling daughters, come listen to me, please
There’s sad news to relate – the way you dress is a tease
Don’t you know that males can’t control their desire –
a hint of breast or thigh sets their genitals on fire?
No matter that you are children, or entering teenage
Men find you sexually attractive and may attack in rage
How you package your body – if you dress attractively
Makes you responsible for men’s out-of-control sexuality!
’Tis sad, darling daughters evolution cannot work
exposure to feminism hasn’t made ‘man’ less of a jerk
Some men remain Neanderthal, think women are prizes,
slaves to breed – willing or unwilling –
just somewhere to plant their precious seed!
Countless ages pass, yet progress is oh, so slow
appendages, goods & chattels, sirens, servants,
maiden, wench, slut… terms many women know.
This the 21st century, intelligence and commonsense demands
social justice and equity with or without wedding bands.
Coupling, coming together, sex must always be consensual,
pleasurable and engaging – with behaviour respectful.
Sex, regardless of gender, is about a caring relationship
Not control or violence left over from Stone Age hubris!
At the moment, we have a Royal Commission into Aged Care happening in South Australia. For many who have experienced the aged care system in Australia, some of the most horrifying revelations will not be a surprise, and the testimony may trigger memories they’d rather forget.
My Dad suffered dementia and was in care for several years and as a family, we can reflect on what was good and what was bad. One brother and one sister bore the brunt of many of the crises and complaints, but all of us learnt to be alert and watchful to ensure Dad was treated with respect and care.
During their late high school and university studies, both my daughters worked part-time in the kitchen of a local aged care centre. Although considered ‘one of the better ones’, it has changed hands several times and in certain aspects needs to improve.
Monday, November 9 (A Triolet) Mairi Neil
The ambulance left with flashing light
With palpitating heart my emotions roam
As memory stirred of the terrible night
The ambulance left with flashing light
Resuscitation an unforgettable sight
Dad alone and prone, in nursing home
The ambulance left with flashing light
With palpitating heart my emotions roam
I was privileged to have a poem about Dad’s journeypublished in the anthology, Memory Weaving, supported by Manningham Council’s Community Grant Program in 2014, and a story in Stolen Moments, 2006, edited by Elizabeth Bezant and Pamela J Eaves and promoted by Alzheimer’s Australia WA, Ltd and Sue Pieters-Hawke, the daughter and carer for much-loved Hazel Hawke, who never ceased to be an advocate for improved aged care resources.
Stories and poems written from the heart can be a great barometer about what is right and what is wrong in the community. Will those with the power to change be prepared to listen and make a difference?
Will the outcome of this Royal Commission provoke the same outrage and promises to accept and act on recommendations as the Banking Royal Commission?
Clovelly Cottage sounds so benign
Perhaps a cottage by the sea
Or among wild mountain thyme…
This was where my Dad ended his days
Trapped in dementia’s memory haze.
A nursing home, no more, or less
Not the worst, but not the best.
Dad’s home for seven long years,
And although a reasonable place,
Most regular visits ended in tears.
Dementia is ‘the carer’s disease’,
Family relationships often a tease.
I was Dad’s sister, long since dead
Other days, a landlady, stingy with bread.
I’d search his face and dark brown eyes
Seeking the beloved Dad I knew
And sometimes, he surprised …
A brilliant smile and ‘hello’ to greet mine
‘How are you?’ followed, ‘I’m just fine!
I shouldn’t be here, take me home today.’
Then the fog of uncertainty carried him away.
For residents to live, and not just exist
Depends on staff and activities
People to cooperate, and not resist.
Many attempts did brighten Dad’s day
Food treats, excursions, music to play.
And when his speech slowly disappeared
His response to songs alleviated some fears.
I accepted the smells of talcum and urine,
The last meal’s clinging aroma
Strong disinfectants, disguising most sins.
I accepted Dad watching Days of our Lives
Forgetting my mother, assuming other wives.
I accepted Dad staring blankly at wall or door
Drooping slack-jawed, even dribbling on floor.
But I’ll never accept all those stolen years
Of a much-loved father and Papa ––
What could have been, still causes tears.
Dad’s ‘episode’ with dementia only part
Of the wonderful man within my heart.
He lived until he was eighty-three
Leaving plenty of positive memories for me!
Pressing Political Issues
Most Australians will be aware that a Federal Election is looming and there are some issues where the major political parties differ starkly in what they see as the problems the country is facing, and the solutions they are proposing.
I hope the majority of voters will think carefully and seek as much information as they can before casting their vote. An informed choice is always better than relying on headlines, adverts and click-bait.
Distraught Democracy (A Triolet)
Democracy requires some thought
The right to vote so dearly won.
Truth and Integrity can’t be bought
Democracy requires some thought
Election promises with lies fraught
Politicians desperately seek the sun
Democracy requires some thought
The right to vote so dearly won!
The recent vote about evacuating refugees on Manus and Nauru islands for medical reasons an example of serious misrepresentation by those who seek to demonise asylum seekers and hope for a return to the horrible campaign of ‘Stop The Boats’ and other three-word slogans that almost stopped compassion and decency as being a motivation for government policy. Our Prime Minister and others should be ashamed to stoop so low again.
Australians are having a vote
Malcolm and Bill both want a moat
People smugglers to shatter
‘Cos Refugees don’t matter
We’ve stopped the boats they gloat.
Turn A Blind Eye
They float like pieces of flotsam
Fear and desperation in their eyes
Praying for the sea to calm
She hoped for God’s large palm
Would He hear desperate cries,
From floating pieces of flotsam?
The water flooded like a burst dam
Boats upended amid gasps and sighs
They prayed for the sea to calm
A boat crowded like a peak hour tram
Women and children with frightened eyes
Now floating like pieces of flotsam
A rescue boat throws some ties
Refugees human in the Captain’s eyes
No more floating pieces of flotsam
Or praying for the sea to calm.
Operation Sovereign Borders
(a found poem from Refugee Week leaflet)
Refugees and asylum seekers
a new life
cross stormy waters
and a welcome
from Australian society ––
young and old.
Amazing personal stories
Prisoners of conscience
from Afghanistan and Burma
seeking to celebrate and contribute.
Their hopes crushed
basic human rights violated
harsh lessons in cruelty
as the innocent
are locked up.
on Nauru and Manus Islands
detention not freedom ––
We can do better
Stand up, Speak up
Refugees and Asylum Seekers
Climate Change is Not Going Away
Business As usual in Australia
(A Found Poem)
Moved into new roles
Unrelated to their specialty
Australia, the nation driest on Earth
Shifts in rainfall but global research community
Young climate scientists without direction
The situation depressing
Climate capability gone
Climate modelling cut
This is not about just Australia
Readings of CO2 from Mauna Loa, Hawaii, and Barrow, Alaska
Confirmation of humanity’s dominion
Over the climate.
It is mind-boggling
Australia is ground zero for climate change
1,000 positions eliminated,
Science easily commercialised
Focus on commercially viable projects
Climate change now settled science
Basic research no longer needed
Paris last year certain
Humans are altering the planet
But Australia’s government
Isn’t serious about climate change
Business comes first!
Save the wilderness
Ancient trees Earth’s lungs.
Lake and hills
Reflecting pool of the future
Wilderness or resort?
Bush On Fire
The sun is dulled by a veil of cloud
Animals culled, Mother Nature a shroud
This defeated giver of life so dear
Now dried up river, its power unclear
A red threat creeping, gathering power
Creatures weeping, air rancid and sour
It dances with glee destroying obstacles with ease
Devours blade and bush, its direction a tease
Whipped and encouraged by angry wind’s collusion
The fiery menace plundered with no delusion
The sun’s conscience exploded, the cloud revealed worth
Only life-saving rain saved the scorched earth.
Haiku – Mairi Neil
Frog or toad – who knows?
No croaking from pond or lake
In a soapy swirl
of polluted waterways
purple the colour of hope
Flash Floods Not Fiction (A Haibun)
City streets awash
El Nino’s temper unleashed
Climate Change ignored
NSW, Queensland and Tasmania storm-blasted. Flooding horrendous. Cars submerged in streets, people drowned or missing. A man fishing from his balcony excites social media when the lake thirty metres from his home visits – and stays. New residents in ground level apartments, shops, and public buildings.
All life disrupted
reptiles infest the buildings
as rivers burst banks
Doctors warn of waterborne disease and the risk of bites from creatures otherwise unseen. Funnel Web spiders flushed inside, pets swept outside.
Winds howl, puff and huff
roofs wrenched from buildings and sheds
squalls strength abnormal
Storms unknown in most people’s lifetime. Sea swells surging over jetties, boats, and homes, with tsunami intent but not its reach. Was it really like this a century ago? Record keeping not an exact science.
Angry seas pummel
rocks and aged roots shaken loose
the clifftops shudder
Countryside recovering from summer bushfires, firestorms, and drought. Life sucked from weary soil, then too much water.
Fragile soil stolen
farmers tears match the deluge
Nature’s balance gone
Doomsayers shake their heads. Sacked scientists despair at self-serving politicians, the population seek soothing before resigned and resilient acceptance. Adaptation anyone?
Our planet’s life finite
Earth will return to stardust
A Wake-Up Call
The people of Longreach
Appeal to fellow Australians
You’ve forgotten us they cry
The rain has stopped
Not seen for years
The grass all withered and dry.
The people of Longreach
Appeal to fellow Australians
Do you know what it’s like here?
Drought has destroyed
Our way of life
The community we hold so dear.
The people of Longreach
Appeal to fellow Australians
Climate Change must be faced
This parched land
No longer produces
Bore water has poison laced
The people of Longreach
Are silent and so sad
Heads bowed at funeral pyre
People, cattle, farms
Now dust to dust
Their history erased by fire
The people of Longreach
Not the only community to die
The driest continent
Will shrivel and shrink
Global warming is making us fry!
So there it is folks – a poet’s response to events in the media from sexism to political gaming on refugees and aged care, to climate change and fire, flood and drought…
The Speech a PM Should Make in 2019
Men and women of Australia
And those who identify as other
There is no time to waste
You must listen to our Mother
Mother Earth, I’m referring to
The mountains, snows, and sea
The seasons, soil, and sunlight
Providing sustenance for you and me
But Mother Earth is terminally ill
Man has definitely not been kind
We’ve raped, polluted and poisoned
For wealth we craved to find
Addicted to manufactured comfort
We’ve gouged mountains into craters
Safe harbours are now wharves
To accommodate gigantic freighters.
Explosions altered landscapes
Concrete towers replacing trees
Animals hunted to extinction
Polar ice caps no longer freeze.
Climate change is not a phrase
But reality for the natural world
Global warming’s rising tides
Cities consumed as tsunamis twirl
Leaving disasters in their wake
Human structures or nature’s design
Mother Earth almost beyond healing
Unless permanent solutions we find
Climate deniers knuckle draggers
As are those mouthing ‘innovation’
Drought, bushfires, failed crops
The word should be desperation!
The time for procrastination gone
Also the sand for burying your head
Earth’s lungs struggle daily to breathe
How long before humanity is dead?
Passports, Visas, Customs Declarations and Border Control all part of travelling overseas today. I’ve had my fair share of good and bad experiences to write about, and they replay like a home movie as the media focus on Trump’s demand for a wall, and Australia is in the hot seat for disregarding human rights whenever it comes to homeland security and asylum seekers.
Every day the News triggers memories or provides prompts to put those elusive words on the blank page – but how to make them meaningful, interesting or thought-provoking is a different matter.
How to give readers a ‘takeaway’ to inspire, enlighten, encourage thoughts and emotional engagement – maybe even travel or share stories themselves?
I can but try – and if it becomes another ramble I hope you enjoy the photographs…
When I revisit my travel diary of travelling in Mongolia and Russia in 2017, I recall a host of other places and compare the experiences.
I admit to having lived a lucky and sheltered life regarding travel, holding a British and Australian passport, I’ve never been refused entry to a country I’ve wanted to visit – even if obtaining a visa to certain countries has been long and/or an expensive process.
It’s interesting to reflect in the context of today’s world, as well as the past, and realise how privileged I’ve been and still am because of the citizenship and passport held, and having the finances to travel – even if most of it done on the cliched ‘smell of an oily rag’.
Anyone who has been to Russia will tell you, the visa process is lengthy and complicated so I left acquiring a Russian visa to Heidi, a magnificent asset to Flower Travel, the company I used to plan the trip of a lifetime on the Trans Siberian Train.
The five days in Mongolia and 18 days in Russia fulfilling what I wanted: to meet the locals, experience their culture, traverse the land visiting historical sites, museums, art and craft galleries and stay in a variety of accommodation: a Mongolian ger camp, hostels, homestays, hotels and of course the train.
Supplying a current photo to their exact specifications the most difficult part of the procedure with the young woman at the local chemist spending a long time and many takes before her cross-checking on the Embassy’s website assured accuracy.
However, even after meticulous filling out of forms, when I opened the registered parcel and checked the passport details as advised, I panicked, anxiety levels sky-rocketing.
Due to leave in a week my hands shook as I rang Heidi:
‘I’ve received my passport…’
‘But there’s a mistake, it’s the wrong name.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Along the bottom, there’s a strip of white with a barcode and some Russian letters and the name is Margaret instead of Mary.’
‘Oh, don’t worry about that, I don’t think the typists they have at the Embassy are too careful – in my passport at that spot they have Helga.’
‘Helga, instead of Heidi? ‘
‘Yet I had to supply all the places I’ve ever studied and the name of the manager in my last job, even if it was years ago and he may be dead!’
‘That’s right, but you are all set to go, trust me.’
I did trust Heidi because she had just returned from travelling the Trans Siberian and had organised a detailed and exciting itinerary for me as a solo traveller over 60 and generously shared insider tips.
I looked forward to a 25-day trip from Ulaanbaatar to Helsinki within my budget with the major difference compared to years ago being technology. I used Facebook as well as Messenger to record a lot of the trip and to keep in touch with my daughters.
Social media cops a lot of criticism but it was a godsend for me when travelling – especially since the video chats were free as long as I had access to Wifi.
When a bomb exploded in the subway in St. Petersburg on April 3, 2017 and I was due to travel to Russia on April 5th my daughters were understandably worried.
It was a suicide bombing carried out by Akbarjon Jalilov, a 22-year-old Kyrgyz-born ethnic Uzbek and naturalized Russian citizen. He was among the 16 dead.
In the weeks after the bombing, authorities arrested 11 people in St. Petersburg and Moscow on suspicion of involvement in the attack. They were from Central Asian countries and the Investigative Committee later said the bombing, which injured about 50 people, was the work of “a radical Islamist terrorist community” but did not name any group. No organization claimed responsibility.
It meant the military and security were more obvious during the period I travelled and it reminded me of Northern Ireland in the 70s when I visited relatives in Belfast and Dromore.
Random acts of violence by disgruntled citizens, rebels, and zealots of various religious or ethnic persuasion are the reason most governments use to increase their security and tighten their borders, whether this actually deters or stops fanatics is debatable.
Messages Between MJ and me, April 2017
Missed video call at 3.58pm
Only one bar of Wifi
All good, just happy you’re safe and arrived alright!!!
I’m going to have a shower will keep trying for a video chat then I’m going for a walk before dark. Will try again – what time is it there? Don’t want to wake you up too early, or miss you if going out.
Don’t stress! Go out and explore!! We are fine, just wanted to check in and see how your flight was xoxoxo It is 4.05pm here on Saturday. What time is it there xoxo
I think it’s 1.51 in afternoon – China is 3 hours behind and Mongolia is 2.
That’s good. We are at Southland. Just finishing shopping then heading home…
Flight was 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. Pretty used to it all now. My protheses caused issues at Melbourne with new machine that body scans. Young man embarrassed when I explained anomaly and asked a female to body search me. Thank God, China and Mongolia don’t have that super dooper tech yet!
Sorry it was an issue but glad you okay. Xoxox
I’m tired but okay. Eyes aching because of lack of sleep, pollution etc. but otherwise honky dory xoxox
Missed video call 5.55pm
Hey Mum, Anne told me about Russia! Scary! So glad you are safe and okay. I’m about to leave for work but if you need to talk or anything I’ll be home in 4 hours. Xoxoxo Love you!!! Xoxoxo
I’m fine darling. I nearly rang last night, not about Russia, but because that meal I bought to thank my guides decided to erupt inside me. Several pairs of knickers later and a stomach sore from vomiting, I went to bed and slept right through until Anne messaged me. So unless the terrorists make me eat, I think I’ll survive! As explained to Anne, please don’t worry if you don’t hear from me for a couple of days because communist countries tend to be heavy-booted. I expect travel delays. I will definitely be in touch when I can. Xxx
That sucks being sick, hopefully it clears up soon. But yes, we won’t panic (we will still worry since that is just what we do!) but just let us know when you can. Love you xoxo
Will do. Yes, who would have thought my last night in Mongolia would be giving their plumbing a workout and me washing pants. But glad it hit me here and not on the train. I’ll stick to cups of soup that I brought and dried crackers so won’t starve. xx Love you heaps. Hope work goes well.
Facebook Post April 4, 2017
Heading for the train station to go to Irkutsk. A last walk around the city and a few observations. Its holidays and lovely to see young boys having great fun in the park throwing an empty plastic bottle over a wooden rail as if playing volleyball. The little buildings used as refreshment places and shops are popular. Why is a bald man leaving the hairdressers grinning? Hope the young girl selling fresh strawberries at the traffic lights makes a quid. The man selling seeds and beans from the back of his van multi-skilled as he pierces a woman’s ears! Mary & Martha named their shop because of the Bible! Two soldiers are noticeable at parliament building probably because of news from St Petersburg. Old nomadic couple sitting sipping fermented milk with an open tin box for donations and a set of scales – interesting way to find your weight. Memorial to the Beatles a surprise but not the manic traffic. No wonder they have restrictions to travel. Most cars are secondhand Japanese or Korean and you can only drive on the days your number plate allows – even businesses. No exemptions. Near the hotel, I paused outside the national school of music and soaked in a beautiful song. Farewell Mongolia and thank you.
Oceans, seas, rivers or lakes, mountain ranges and forests are geographical features that form natural borders, but for centuries, usually after wars and invasions, borders have been man-made and their upkeep a military exercise. Imaginary lines or outposts mutually agreed or imposed to keep people in and most importantly, others out.
Building barriers not new.
In Roman times, Hadrian’s Wall was built with the aim of keeping marauding Scots out of Roman England, the Great Wall of China was ostensibly erected to keep out the Mongols,and plenty of walled cities developed in Europe and around the world.
Border control means measures adopted by a country to regulate and monitor its borders. … It regulates the entry and exit of people, animals and goods … and in modern times it aims to stop terrorism and detect the movement of criminals across borders.
However, to defend these arbitrary borders takes time and effort, money and resources and in the case of modern-day barriers like The Berlin Wall, the Korean Demilitarized Zone, the Israeli Gaza security barrier and West Bank wall, and the current US/Mexican wall – countless lives have been lost to protect the integrity of something entirely made-up by political rulers at a particular point in history.
Governments have always regarded the ability to determine who enters or remains in their territories as a key test of their sovereignty, especially after conflicts like World War I where the winners rewarded allies with lands – actions that caused resentment and many of the problems today.
I can remember how much John Lennon’s Imagine resonated with my generation as the Vietnam War raged – the first war to be televised – so many of us desired his dream, consistently dismissed as ‘unimaginable’ and utopian.
I’d been warned by Heidi, that the train is thoroughly searched before leaving Mongolia and then a few metres over the border, it is the Russian authorities turn.
‘The record delay is 13 hours,’ Heidi said, ‘but I don’t think you’ll suffer that horror. However, be prepared.’
“My old Girl Guide motto,’ I said, assuring Heidi I’d have a good book, crossword puzzles, snacks, and most of all patience in my luggage. I’ll need the latter, I thought, as images of Murder On The Orient Express and several other movies about trains stuck out in the middle of nowhere flashed through my mind.
Five fast-paced, amazing days in Mongolia ground to a halt as our train and its occupants stuttered over the border to spend three hours being inspected by grim-faced and sharp-tongued Mongolian and Russian authorities, doing ‘their duty’.
Now would be the testing time – will the contradiction in my passport matter, are Margaret and Mary considered so similar in Russia? Fear began to gnaw at my stomach…
I know it was a customs/border security check and rarely in any country, in my experience, are the personnel conducting the checks super friendly but there is a difference between curtness and courtesy.
Facebook Post April 5, 2017
Left Mongolia and after a very long journey and overnight on the train, I have arrived at my homestay with Olga in Irkutsk. The border a nightmare that lasted several hours. Mongolian and Russian border security competing to see who can out-Nazi each other. I was relatively unscathed because a tourist but locals had bags searched while being cross-questioned. Door slamming, luggage compartments grunting and groaning, cardboard boxes ripped open and lots of yelling and some arguing. Soldiers with sniffer dogs, torches, scanners for retina checks – the works.
Eugene, my guide for the next few days, warned me there will be lots of passport checks but hopefully no more wholesale custom crap. I was adopted by a lovely lady, Nara, on the train grateful I let her and husband use my adaptor to charge their phones. Amazing what you can learn from sharing family photos on your phone and sign language. The journey through Siberia alongside Lake Baikal stunning, a sensory overload even though heaps of snow and now as I sit in Olga’s comfortable home listening to the snow melt outside my window and the joyous sound of children playing ,I’m gradually losing the rhythm of the train and the creaking and groaning of the swaying carriages, the growling hum of the diesels wheels against the rails. A group of teenagers are having a snowball fight – takes me back to my childhood in Scotland!
The fastidiousness of the border guards understandable due to the explosion in St Petersburg underground but I was grateful for the friendliness of some of the passengers aboard the train and the beauty of the scenery as we sped through the night … all helped me to relax and enjoy my holiday.
Leaving Mongolia there was a vast brown landscape, plains dotted with horses, rugged mountains in the distance and occasional reminders of winter with swathes of snow lying unmelted.
Semi-industrial towns and white-topped gers clustered in villages and camps. Then into Russia – fairytale Siberia with skeletal trees, frozen rivers and lakes…
Messages Between MJ and me, April 2017
Hi love I am safe in Irkutsk with a nice lady and her husband. There is WiFi. Not sure what time it is there or here for that matter – late afternoon. Train trip was okay and people friendly. Met by Eugene. This place has population 600,000. Next place for one night has population 2000! Got my train tix for rest of trip so far so good. Hope all is well there Xx Sorry if mistakes but fat fingers – hope you understand okay
Yay you arrived safely!!! It’s just after 7pm here (was feeding the dog so only just saw your messages!) How was the train ride? Helen says hello and that she is glad you’re safe… Anne popped round last night… Aurora misses you (so do I since the house is way too quiet)… I’m alright… Barbara rang me after work yesterday worried about you and Russia… How was it getting into Russia? Are they on high alert after everything that has happened? Love you xoxoxoxo
Hi love just had a wonderful hot shower. The border was crap. They could teach the nazis. I was ok but Anna who shared my berth had to open every package and a cardboard box. She had bought stuff in Mongolia so had most locals because cheaper I guess, but 3 hours of banging seats and doors and yelling. Soldiers came on with torches checked every crevice. Sniffer dogs. Portable scanners for retina checks against passports. Cross questioning. And that’s a normal day apparently. Anna was 62 and no English but we shared pictures of our children on phones etc she was so worked up about the border checks before it happened but then she’s lived through Stalinism and all the other changes. I just smiled and kept saying tourist. Xx
Another lady Nara adopted me and when no one seemed to be there to meet me she was going to ring the travel office. Had her husband carry my bags and someone else search the platform. When Eugene found me he was all apologetic – no one had said what carriage and he started at one end of platform and worked his way to the other. Olga the lady here is very nice and her English quite good. Her husband friendly too but his English not so good. They have gone out – very trusting. And I have my own key. I may go for a walk but at the moment need to get my head around things and organise my case. Xx
That’s a bit scary but glad people were friendly and helpful xoxox That’s great you can come and go as you please and have some privacy… You have fun exploring, please be safe – I know stuff is out of your control but Anne and I really did have a big fright when we heard about the terror attack on the subway. Love you xoxoxo
I can’t afford to get cold feet or be scared love. One day at a time and do try not to worry. Look after yourself. Xx
… Yes don’t let fear rule your exciting adventure but still just have your wits about you! Love you xoxoxo
Will do. Xx
Is a Peaceful World Without Borders A Fantasy?
Borders help create “otherness” and generate fear. If there was free movement of people there could be a reduction in flag-waving and overt nationalism and more understanding and tolerance of difference.
Currently, we have refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi stuck in a Thai prisonbecause Interpol and the Australian authorities stuffed up communication and Bahrain demands his extradition for alleged crimes. Hakeem has been granted refugee status in Australia, is on his way to being a model citizen and I would have thought the Australian Government should have and could protect him, but apparently, it has to be left to celebrities and sporting personnel, and the media.
Ironically, the same media that whipped up fear of the other, immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers… with headlines about hordes, queue jumpers, illegal immigrants, Australia being swamped by boats, our way of life being destroyed, traditions being wrecked, terrorists sneaking in… ad nauseam!
Words are powerful and when newspaper headlines and TV and Radio broadcasters continually and consistently use derogatory or false names for refugees and immigrants and cast aspersions on their character and motivation it affects how they are welcomed or rejected.
At the Australian National University in the 1970s, I studied Modern Revolutionary History with Professor Daphne Gollan and Revolts & Insurgencies with Professor Geoffrey Bartlett, plus Russian writers:Dostoyevsky,Pushkin,Solzhenitsyn,Tolstoy,but perhaps the most memorable impact came from Hungarian Arthur Koestler’s, Darkness at Noon.
I recalled that book when I saw the terror on the wrinkled face of the grandmother, sharing the berth on the train to Irkutsk.
She lived through Stalinism, the bloodbath of Perestroika as the Soviet Union disintegrated, and now the reign of Putin. I watched beads of sweat gather on her upper lip, her hands shake as she opened and closed her passport and unzipped her bags waiting for the inspection. She checked and double-checked her bundle of receipts.
When the uniformed officer came into our cabin, he made her unpack every case and package. He cross-questioned her on what she bought,peered at receipts,stared into her face at close quarters willing her to admit to lies or a mistake.
In the other carriages shouting, scraping, banging, dragging noises, wood against wood, metal against metal, boots echoing on the train’s floor. The stillness of the night shattered by military activity throughout the train corridors while the engine hummed and generated electricity.
I unzipped my one bag and offered my passport for inspection, which was handed to another officer who stood in the corridor holding a laptop open. She scanned my passport and like her companion stared long and hard at me making my stomach somersault.
I swallowed hard,hoping I looked innocent – crazy because I was – but security of all persuasions scare me.I don’t know why but nerves tingle and I feel I’m going to be accused and forced to admit guilt for something I didn’t do.
Snatches from old movies and books rattle in my head.
Born eight years after the end of the war in Europe and part of the generation to first experience television, endless images of escaped POWs, Jewish and other refugees fleeing Nazi or Stasi brutality, and of course, John Wayne winning the war, are embedded in my psyche.
How do people on false papers, or with something to hide, manage to fool security?
How do they keep their cool?
How do innocent or frightened people recover from harsh treatment at borders?
Those poor Saudi women, those terrified Rohingya refugees, those asylum seekers stuck on Nauru and Manus Islands for years… waiting for enough people to find courage and compassion…
The last time I had been ordered around with one syllable words like ‘out’ ‘give’ ‘sit’ and ‘here’ without a ‘please or thank you’ was in 1984 ( an apt year) when John and I were on a Cosmos tour of Europe and in a bus crossing from Switzerland into Germany.
The intense fear I felt on the bus, despite documents being in order, returned while sitting in the train carriage in Russia. A six-foot uniformed, armed man towering over you and demanding ‘passport’ is intimidating no matter where you are.
Minutes of examining passport photograph and visa stamps – silent but for the flicking of pages interrupted by occasional glances. Nerve-wracking in the extreme.
In Germany, once the guards left the bus, conversation resumed at record levels, and more than one person imagined aloud the plight of the Jewish people under the Third Reich.
And to think the British people voted for Brexit and want to return to increased border checks!!
Three hours at the border or 13 hours a disconcerting run-in with authority in a foreign country always a holiday negative. Border checks a reality to be prepared for with patience.
I had a gift voucher to use for the Arts Centre which was close to expiry date (last year was not a good year healthwise for booking anything in advance) and when I saw Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story advertised with a session offering Q & A with the cast afterwards, I knew this was the perfect fit for my voucher – and which of my friends I’d invite to share the experience.
My friend Lisa, grew up in Caulfield and developed long-standing friendships and a special affinity with Jewish culture. She also loves plays as a form of storytelling, as much as I do.
What better play for us to see together than one advertised as–
A dark, funny and high-energy klezmer-folk tale inspired by the real-life story of two Romanian Jews seeking refuge in Canada in 1908.
It’s early 20th century Halifax and Chaim and Chaya, hounded from home, are waiting for immigration to decide their future, under threat of tuberculosis and typhus. Will they survive in this new land?
With neo-klezmer songs written by director Christian Barry and acclaimed genre-bending performer and musician Ben Caplan, this quirky one-act musical is written by award-winning playwright Hannah Moscovitch, who based it on the story of her own Jewish great-grandparents.
This bewitching music-theatre hybrid and cautionary tale for modern times – performed with instruments ranging from fiddle to clarinet, accordion, banjo and megaphone – was nominated for six Drama Desk Awards, won multiple Edinburgh Fringe awards and was a New York Times Critic’s Pick.
Old Stock is about humanity and finding your place in the world. Above all this story is about hope.
The refugee crisis is a topic rarely out of the news, especially in Australia, where we have asylum seekers languishing on offshore islands under indefinite detention and any discussion we have in the media or parliament soon descends into blame, shame, distortion of facts and fear of the other.
Everyone should listen carefully to the acceptance speech, via video, of Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian Kurdish refugee because it is about being human, not labelling yourself as a particular nationality, religion, or ethnic group.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story definitely topical!!
Whose interest is served by dividing the world into countries, building walls, increasing security and border checks, incarcerating those fleeing violence and natural disasters, stirring up resentment and hate, attaching ridiculous and misleading labels?
Most people, if given the choice would stay put, live in their own country and prefer peace – that is the reality.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, like the novel No Friend But The Mountains challenge us to humanise these tragic circumstances and are great examples of what Ursula Le Guin believed,
“Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”
The Power of Stagecraft
Louisa Adamson & Christian Barry were responsible for set and lighting design but stagecraft also includes technical aspects of theatrical production like sound, costume design and makeup.
All are important to set the scene for the audience but also enable the cast to perform smoothly.
These technical and artistic elements require a vision and interpretation that suits the theme/story and also gives the audience an enjoyable and entertaining experience.
In the foyer of the theatre, there were displays of costumes and models of sets emphasising these very points. Lisa mentioned how much she had enjoyed The King and I and we observed various people posing for photographs on a mock-up of the set for Evita fancying themselves as Eva Perón!
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story went for 80 minutes without a break providing a challenge that a conventional drama with an interval might not and considering the subject matter and the set, I don’t think many will queue to have their photograph taken.
The lighting always important on stage but for this performance exceptionally so, to focus on a particular performer and distract the audience if props were being moved and others in the cast changed costumes or positions.
The Fairfax Theatre at the Arts Centre is comfortable and intimate and we had seats in the second row so had a great view of the performers and the set, which when we first sat down looked like a shipping container.
Ben Caplan in a bushy beard, top hat and a purplish jacket is spectacular and loud, almost raunchy when he appears like a magician amid smoke and flashing lights from the top of the container.
The intro routine opens two large, swinging doors displaying various musical instruments, hats, shawl and other accoutrements on hooks and shelves but Ben sings with gusto and he’s telling the story through his songs, which requires our concentration.
While he captured our attention, the other cast members set up the remaining props and hung the Halifax sign. The compactness and portability of the design clever, and although colourful, never became a distraction from the words and music.
A simple packing case and upended suitcases interchangeable as the characters journey through life and tell their story – which involves settling in Montreal (another sign up) getting married and starting a family.
Ben acknowledged Louise in the Q & A afterwards for the set’s strong visual metaphor. Most refugees have to travel by ship at some stage in their journey (certainly the ones in this story) and it also references World War Two refugees herded into freight train carriages.
I wondered if the white-haired gentleman, who asked the question about the set had memories of his family escaping the Holocaust like Denise Weiss, one of my students who wrote a hauntingly beautiful but sad vignette about her Jewish parents escaping Hungary – a train journey her grandmother and others took that ended in the gas chamber.
Although it is based on the historical upheavals and forced journeys the Jewish people have experienced, the story and characters are an allegory, representing humanity, and all people forced from their home because of war, prejudice, fear, natural disaster, or a desire to improve the lives of their children.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper’s use this week of the term “old stock Canadians” in response to a question on support for reduced health coverage for refugees drew swift condemnation on social media, where many suggested the term has racist implications.
The newspaper article linked above has interviews with a variety of Canadians including George Elliott Clarke, Poet Laureate of Toronto. (I’m quoting him because I love poets, especially those with his ability, and who successfully show the personal is political and vice versa!)
Stock: A 7th-generation descendant of black refugees who settled in Nova Scotia in 1813, long before Confederation, Clarke also has native heritage and is a member of the Eastern Woodlands Metis Nation.
“The true ‘old-stock’ Canadians are the First Nations and Inuit and Metis, followed by the many divergent ethnicities who were also present in colonial Canada, from African slaves in muddy York to ‘German’ settlers on the South Shore of Nova Scotia, from the Chinese merchants present in Nouvelle-France to the Portuguese and Basque fishermen of Newfoundland.
“Personally, I think the current Prime Minister is unsure about his own identity and possibly nervous about the true, multicultural, multilingual, multiple-faiths and multiracial Canada that now beautifully, proudly, lives and flourishes.”
But perhaps it is a quote from Elise Harding-Davis, former curator of the North American Black Historical Museum that resonates more with what has happened to the debate in Australia – a debate that went downhill extremely fast with Prime Minister John Howard’s disgusting refusal to let the Tampa land asylum seekers and his declaration of ‘we’ll decide who comes into this country‘ plus his protegees Abbott and Morrison suggesting civilisation began with colonisation and revering Captain Cook!
Like all descendants of escaped slaves, her family was granted Canadian citizenship only in 1911. “Canada didn’t start out lily white. In fact, the only non-immigrants are the First Nations, aboriginal people… The idea of ‘Canadian stock’ is innocent ignorance. It’s a mindset of traditional thinking that all the people who started anything of note through history were the conquerors.”
The next major influence for Ben was the war in Syria and the appalling images of fleeing refugees and that shocking image of three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi drowned as his family tried to escape. This tiny body, washed ashore at a popular wealthy resort in Turkey, highlighted the suffering and death of many refugees and the huge divide regarding wealth, safety, and lifestyles in the world.
On World Refugee Day 2018, a record 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced in 2017. Record high numbers of men, women and children were driven from their homes across the world due to war, violence and persecution, according to a June 2018 report by the United Nations’ refugee agency.
Singer-songwriter Ben Caplan is the story-teller/God, a performance almost Vaudevillian as he behaves like an emcee (that’s where the megaphone listed as a musical instrument comes in) and also sings, dances (one number for me recalled a scene from Fiddler On The Roof) and acts in-between introducing the various scenes where Chaim (Dani Oore) and Chaya (Mary Faye Coady) tell their story intermingled with musical interludes. (Dani plays the woodwind and Mary Faye, the violin).
This is a tragedy with comedic streaks, especially the brilliant inflexions of Chaya and Chaim’s voices delivering their lines, many with the irony and chutzpah identifiably Jewish. Mary Faye said she listened to many accents online and worked on her voice for over a year to get the accent right. (She is of Scots/Irish descent, like me.)
The rhyme and rhythm of Ben’s songs catchy (if somewhat repetitive) but one, in particular, had the audience in an uproar when he recited euphemisms for sex (some I’d heard, others bizarre) and then suggested perhaps celibacy needed ‘careful consideration’.
When he dons the shawl of a rabbi and sings as a cantor, his voice and words are haunting – I found it deeply moving, even although it wasn’t in English – the meaning and emotional impact understood.
From the reaction of the audience and the questions after the show, it is obvious many were Jewish and the choice of music and songs triggered personal memories.
One lady of Russian descent, remembered a traditional lullaby her grandmother used to sing and suggested it be included in the show to make the scene where a lullaby is sung more authentic – Ben Caplan thanked her for her input but the power of art – song, poetry, drama, music, dance – crosses all boundaries and the writer and cast want to reach the largest possible audience.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story touched me, a person without a Jewish heritage. I found it captivating, emotionally engaging, entertaining and memorable with, I suggest, enough authenticity to satisfy most of the Jewish people present but not isolate Gentiles.
The story is about Jewish refugees Chaim and Chaya meeting in the line at the Immigration Centre in 1908 Halifax, Canada. They are both new arrivals from Romania, both traumatised from harrowing journeys but ordered into a line for the sick. He might have typhus because he has a rash. She might have caught her sister’s tuberculosis, she has a cough. He is ‘just a kid’ at eighteen years old but after seeing his family murdered in a pogrom has grown up fast. She is twenty-four, too young to be a widow but her husband and child didn’t survive the arduous journey they made across Russia to escape what Chaim lived.
Will they be allowed into Canada?Will they live long enough to establish a new life? Will they fall in love and have a future together?
The Jewish experience is dominant and when you read (warning this is very disturbing) about the rise of anti-semitic behaviour in Melbourne, this is a play with subject matter that needs as wide an audience as possible, with more Q and A’s afterwards discussing the points it raises.
What do you choose to do if someone is pounding on your door needing help – do you let them in or ignore their plight?
When are people accepted as citizens or allowed to belong and their contribution acknowledged?
The story seeks the sympathy and understanding of the audience and challenges us to confront the reality of refugees, the various reasons and circumstances forcing people to seek asylum, and the dehumanising language used by politicians, the media and bigots, the myths and misinformation, the stirring of fear when it should be compassion…
If someone is seeking help does it matter what religion, what colour, what language group, what religion they are – isn’t the fact they are desperate for help enough?
People are not numbers, not statistics, not clones – humanity is diverse.
To tell this story with shades of light and dark, fast-paced mood changes and engaging craftmanship of acting, voice, dance and music, the cast deserves hearty congratulations and lots more success as they take their show around the world.
Simone de Beauvoir once said:
“It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting.“
I’m so glad I heard a little of the lives of Hannah Moscovitch’s Chaim and Chaya and will continue to advocate for our government to treat better those who come to Australia.
My second duty stint last weekend for Open House Bendigowas at the Town Hall, Sunday morning. According to a tourist brochure on heritage buildings:
“If it was good enough for Denmark’s royal palace, it was good enough for Bendigo. German artist, Otto Waschatz decorated both, adorning Bendigo’s Town Hall interior with mythical figures and rich gold leaf. Outside, muscular ‘Atlas” sculptures support the clock’s weight. These are fitting fixtures for architect William Vahland’s greatest work (1878-86).”
Seeing these magnificent features a definite drawcard on Sunday, however, I don’t think the artist envisaged the hall being the registration point for cyclists involved in the second Bendigo Cycling Classic – hence the signs around the doorway asking for care and respect for the walls and floors.
The Bendigo Town Hall stands out and beautifully renovated in 2003, it is well cared for and was one of the many buildings representing gold-rush-era heritage.
Located in the heart of the city and built in the height of the gold rush period like so many of the other wonderful buildings, it is a remarkable legacy of a time when money was plentiful, dreams were big, and prominent townsfolk and those who made the decisions for the municipality ensured the wealth and splendour of Bendigo’s ‘golden age’ did not go unnoticed.
Town Hall: Council Chambers
Local architect WC Vahland was commissioned to redevelop the Town Hall and came up with a masterpiece that helped secure his place as one of the city’s most revered architects. The Town Hall interiors feature decorative plaster adorned with 22-carat-gold leaf, reflecting the stories the stories of a city built on gold.
In 2003, The Bendigo town Hall returned to the elegance and beauty of its 19th-century heritage after an extensive restoration and renovation program including plasterworks murals and gold leaf worked by skilled artists and artisans.
A snippet from another tourist promotion:
The name Bendigo originated from a world famous bare-knuckled boxer, William ‘Abednigo’ Thompson. A shepherd, on the Ravenswood run near Bendigo, he was handy with his fists and became renowned as a great fighter. He lived in his hut on a creek which flowed through the valley where gold was found. It is said that this shepherd, nicknamed ‘Abednigo’ lent his name to this rich goldfield – and the rest, as they say ‘is history’.
The Cornish Miner
Erected in appreciation of the endeavours of all the underground miners of Bendigo and District who created the economy from which grew a beautiful city thus leading to further developments and helping to provide the base for Victoria to become an industrial state.
Cornishmen and their descendants formed the majority of these miners. Erected by the City of Greater Bendigo on behalf of its Citizens and the Cornish Association of Bendigo and District 1996.
Open House Bendigo, 2018
On Sunday, between 10.00am and 1.00 pm, 179 people took advantage of access and traipsed through the Town Hall, joining 600 from the day before.
Jaws dropped at the old Council Chamber’s polished wood, rich leather, gorgeous wall murals and marble posts, rich gilded ceiling and pelmets.
However, despite a clear sign and my gentle reminders, I had to ask a couple of people more than once NOT to sit in the Mayor’s Chair or rub their hands over the wood and leather.
And it wasn’t young people who were the culprits but seniors who should have known about the damage human sweat can do to artefacts and that if hundreds of people were allowed “just one photo please of me sitting in the chair” the likelihood of damage is high. I’m sure if the mayoral robes had not been encased in glass, some people would have been tugging at the chain.
The policeman role aside, I loved the stories people shared with me and the many remarks of appreciation of the skilled craftsmanship and pride in the presentation evident in the old and new council chambers and the hall.
Two ladies talked about making their debut in the Town Hall – one in 1956, the other in 1966 when Mr Oliver (who happened to be her boss) was the mayor.
He let her sit in the mayor’s chair! She can remember the fear of the small group of girls waiting in the chamber before descending the staircase to walk the full length of the ‘great hall’ to be presented to the mayor (Mr Oliver). ‘It was terrifying,’ she said, never having been so exposed to officialdom and public scrutiny, it was a relief to dance the Charmaine, their presentation dance.
She explained the event to her grandchildren who listened with polite interest and I was struck with the fact that after more than half a century, her overwhelming memory is of feeling anxious and intimidated.
Another lady was proud to tell me her son-in-law painted all the gold lettering in the hall during the renovations. I wish she had been nearby when a rare negative interaction occurred.
An old man in a faux stetson wanted to know how much gold was in the paint and how much the gilding cost. He was disappointed I didn’t know. I told him to speak with Nathan, the Town Hall representative who was managing the numbers of visitors downstairs.
Cold eyes beneath the hat stared at me for a moment, before cross-questioning who I was and why I was there. I explained about Open House and that as a long-term volunteer from Melbourne I volunteered for this inaugural Bendigo event.
His response thick with sarcasm, ‘How very altruistic of you,’ as he walked away disappointed I couldn’t give him the statistics he wanted.
I was glad Nathan was there because there was so much going on and the visitors were constant. He had shown me around the place before the doors opened and when we looked into the current council chamber he warned that although most people are respectful to watch out for ‘anti-council’ behaviour.
From my position in the hallway, I could see inside the old chamber but also see the new chamber because the wall is all glass. I kept my eye on Mr Stetson – rightly or wrongly I’d earmarked him!
Impressed by its ‘grandeur’, many people asked me why the council had stopped using the old chamber and when I pointed out the obvious they could see the new room was much more suitable:
the old council chamber did not have room for the current number of councillors, staff or press or the modern day technological requirements
the old council chamber did not have room for a public gallery and ratepayers are allowed into most council meetings
the cost of maintaining the old chamber – regularly cleaning it and repairing any wear and tear if it was used would be much more than for the modern chamber
The new council chamber had rows of seats for visitors plus a gallery of photos of previous mayors.
The current mayor of Bendigo is female but in the early days of the city as the dozen pictures lining the walls reveal, the ‘founding fathers’ were male.
I can almost guarantee future depictions of mayors will not be oil paintings or photographs by prized photographers or placed in huge gilt frames. I even wonder if the mayoral robes will be donned – times have changed!
The early mayors were all active in business and community organisations, each leaving a distinctive legacy and exceptional worthwhile achievements that resonate today. A lady confided to me with pride that one of the mayors pictured – Cr JH Curnow JP, 1901 and mayor 1902-4, 1912-13, 1919-20, 1927-28 – was a relative and she had no idea of his achievements!
It Is Important to Acknowledge Mayoral Milestones
Thomas Jefferson Connelly, a solicitor, was elected mayor in 1887 – the first Bendigo native and the youngest man up to that time to hold office. He was born in Sandhurst and was 29 years old. He was president of the Australian Natives Association and a driving force behind Federation and a close friend of Australia’s second PM Alfred Deakin. Sadly, Connelly contracted typhoid fever as a result of overwork in his private practice and died at only 34 years of age leaving a widow and three children.
Ambrose Dunstan was one of Bendigo’s oldest Justices of the Peace and on many occasions was the assistant coroner. From 1891-2 he was President of Australian Natives Association. During his term during WW1 house numbering was carried out, 182 building permits issued and he unveiled the Soldier’s Memorial Statue, recently refurbished 2018.
“The news that the armistice had been signed by German representatives reached Bendigo about midnight on November 11th 1918. At 2am on November 12th, Mayor Dunstan read a message from the Governor-general on the steps of the Town Hall to a crowd of over 1000. The joyous peal of St Paul’s bells and the continuous tolling of the town clock awakened the people, who came to the city in large numbers. The mayor invited those present to give thanks and proceeding closed with the National Anthem. Peace had been declared.”
We are close to celebrating the centenary of that PEACE and thinking about the huge numbers of war dead and casualties still makes me weep. It is not an exaggeration to think almost every household would have been touched in some way and I can just imagine the joy of this spontaneous gathering in the predawn light.
David John Andrew another early mayor ‘led a very active public life and there were few movements in which he was not connected.’ Captain of the Bendigo Fire Brigade in 1898 he held that position until his death. Chairman of the CFA he ‘heartily devoted himself to the promotion of the best interests of firemen and the firefighting service generally.’Born in Scotland, he was prominent in the Bendigo Caledonian Society, the Victoria Scottish Union and the Masonic Order.For many years, as the Secretary of the Easter Fair, he was interested in the Bendigo Hospital and Benevolent Home and pursued the matter of sewerage strenuously. He believed when Bendigo was sewered the death rate would be lowered considerably and cited that in 1909 there had been 719 births and 548 deaths. He committed his life to humanitarian causes and during the years of the Great War, he organised support for Australian soldiers and prisoners of war.
Mayor William Beebe, MBE, continued as a councillor until ten weeks before his death in 1920 and was mourned by many including PM Hughes who sent condolences: “ My deepest sympathy in your sad bereavement. Bendigo has lost a very worthy citizen and Australia one of her most loyal sons.” Beebe took the lead in patriotic movements and social, religious and philanthropic objectives hence being awarded the MBE.
Born in Sandhurst in 1857 he worked with his father as a stonemason, studied architectural drawing at the School of Mines and with his father designed and built several buildings during the 1880s. Later as an architect, Beebe was responsible for the ANA Hall, the City Markets, the Fire Station in View Street, the Royal Bank (now a restaurant) and Lansellstowe and numerous private homes.
Another young councillor (39 years), Mayor Michael Guidice (1922-24) directed his energy and faith to commercial enterprises for the advancement of Bendigo. Managing Director of Bendigo United Breweries he was associated with the moving picture industry from its pioneering days.
In 1913 he formed the Bendigo Lyric Photoplays and personally supervised the opening and work of the new Lyric theatre that year as well as being governing director of The Shamrock Hotel. He was a moving force in forming the Shakespearean Reading and Literary Society and assisted in the formation of the Bendigo Choral Society.
Mayor Ernest Vains (1924-25) was born in Kerang and started a Stock and Station Agent’s business in Bendigo. “Hehad a great capacity for work and attempted to attract industries…” Director of the Bendigo Sun and the Farmers and Citizens Trustees P/L, playing a prominent role in the formation of Bendigo Rotary Club in 1925. A keen outdoor sportsman, a member of the Bendigo Jockey Club, secretary of the South Bendigo Bowling Club and office bearer Golden Square Bowling Club. When retiring from office 1926, he noted four deaths ascribed to diphtheria and two from typhoid fever and overall 497 deaths and 689 births.
Mayor Frederick Niemann born in sale 1879 and mayor during the Depression years took a prominent role in retaining the railway workshops in Bendigo. He was one of the founders of the Advance Bendigo and North League and held the position of Chief Magistrate in Bendigo with many years of experience in commerce and industry.
Thank you, Mayor Niemann, for saving the railway workshops! I caught the train to Bendigo for Open House weekend. On the way, there were plenty of rolling green fields with emerald green grass to feed the grazing cattle, horses and sheep. No obvious signs of drought yet.
The Bendigo to Melbourne train line opened in October 1862 but the steam train then a different beast entirely from the comfortable and relatively smooth ride V-Line offers today.
Another mayor in the 1930s, Mayor George Bennetts built up the well known Bennetts Arcade Stores, one of the most progressive of its kind in Bendigo and later acquired by Woolworths. Bennetts was a keen bowler and member of Bendigo Golf Bowling Club, a Justice of the Peace and responsible for the Easter Saturday Street carnival.
There is a street sculpture by artist Maggie Fooke “After The Procession” dedicated on October 1993 and commissioned by the Bendigo Easter Fair Society. I didn’t remember seeing it on an earlier visit to Bendigo perhaps because it looks so natural! It was ‘refurbished and restored and presented to the people of Bendigo to celebrate the 140th Easter Procession on the 5th April 2010.
W.C Vahland the architect for the Town Hall, came originally from Germany seeking gold but stayed to practice his profession as an architect. How lucky was Bendigo!?
He may have struck out finding gold, but his legacy of fine buildings increased the wealth of Bendigo.
A comment on the refurbishment – a young man was keen to show me travel pictures on his phone. Inside the huge twin towers in Abu Dhabi, there are the exact same light fittings used in the hallway between Bendigo’s two council chambers – and he has seen them elsewhere!
And a final comment from an appreciative visitor to Open House at the Town Hall. She had visited ‘by default’ because like many people in Bendigo she wanted to see what had been achieved so far in the redevelopment of the Beehive Building, which was still a construction site and had been boarded up for several years.
However, her curiosity didn’t extend to waiting in a queue for over an hour and she was thrilled to come straight into the Town Hall, learn history she didn’t know and be amazed at the beautiful finishing touches on the walls and ceiling.
The woman was really enjoying the Open House weekend and agreed wholeheartedly with the current mayor, Cr Margaret O’Rourke,
“Bendigo has so much fascinating architecture that will be wonderful to share with visitors and residents alike.”
Coco Chanel apparently said, ‘Nature gives you the face you have at 20. Life shapes the face you have at 30, but at 50 you get the face you deserve.’
If we sulked or made a funny or unpleasant face, my Mum used to warn, ‘the wind will change and you’ll stay like that.’ Both my parents championed smiling and politeness and modelled being friendly and pleasant.
‘You use more muscles to frown than smile’ is always a good comeback when someone looks glum, but there is no scientific proof behind the old saying!
“Scientists have studied the muscles needed for both facial expressions, and to do a small smile generally uses 10 muscles; a small frown uses 6. On average, a smile uses 12 and a frown 11. However, since humans tend to smile a lot, these muscles are stronger. A frown may be slightly more effort to produce just because we aren’t as used to using these muscles.”
However, scientific proof or not, I’m sticking with smiles, politeness and kindness to people because I feel better when I do and following another piece of Mum advice, ‘civility costs nothing.’
My face – wrinkles et al – reflects life hasn’t been easy but there are plenty of laughter lines and when I meet up with friends there are usually smiles and laughter aplenty and I try and catch up with as many as possible during term breaks.
Spring In Melbourne Town 2018
(A hybrid Haibun)
Today, I won’t be grey and miserable
and definitely ‘not over the hill’
I’m meeting a friend of many years
several hours we’ll happily fill.
On way to the train U3A club gathering ‘Nice day for an outing!’
Dressed for mercurial Melbourne
sturdy shoes and light jackets,
sunglasses, lanyards with names,
backpacks and lunch in packets.
‘Join us?’ their chorus prepared for fun and adventure my kind of ageing…
On the train beside a Metro worker
who’s heading for Glenhuntly Station
we chat about insecure work and gender
driving a train once her inclination.
‘I’m on the bus now Meet you under the clocks C u soon’
A confirmation text received
we’ve embraced the digital age
but I open a book of poetry –
I prefer words written on the page.
Train stops Platform 10 30 steps to reach the street ever mindful of heart health
Food court wafts hot chips, coffee and cake
September’s Showtime and school hols
Flinders station’s abuzz with children
plus seagull, sparrow and pigeon trolls.
Myki tapped lightly eyes seek a waiting friend welcome smiles and hug
Age hasn’t happened all at once
however, we stroll not stride, to NGV
with hours to enjoy art and beauty
top priorities a pee and a cup of tea!
A young girl walks by her straw hat embroidered – the word – ‘paradise‘
Indeed! Melbourne – the world’s most liveable city.
Old friends are gold
Uma and I go back forty years BC (before children) and have encountered storms and defeats; sunny days and triumphs. Recently, retired from full-time work Uma is recovering from a serious back operation. I’m a few years older, almost retired from part-time work – four months to go – but who is counting!
For a just celebrated 61st birthday, Uma received membership to the NGV and as we walked from Flinders Street Station, she extolled the advantages and virtues of access to talks, special events, behind the scene views, plus a membership lounge – our first stop for a complimentary cuppa.
I love the NGV too – it is celebrating 50 years this year and I can remember it being built. In fact, I can remember the obligatory school excursion where you got to lie on the floor and stare up at the magnificent and unusual leadlight glass ceiling.
There are always several special exhibitions at the NGV, plus their permanent collection. Uma’s input and knowledge from attending member lectures added to the richness of the day as we wandered through galleries discussing exhibits.
A recent talk about Nick Cave’s work: Sound Suit made her think differently about the pieces and how we perceive each other.
Nick Cave makes sculptures that you can wear. These outfits cover the body and remove all traces of the wearer’s identity. When you are wearing a Soundsuit, no one can tell whether you are rich or poor, black or white, male or female…he created his Soundsuit series in an attempt to process his trauma associated with the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
…wearable sculptures act as symbols of endurance and a form of protection by obscuring all signs of the wearer’s race, gender, age, sexual identification and class…
…made from everyday materials sourced largely from flea markets, including dyed human hair, plastic buttons, beads and feathers…joyous and spectacular…rattle and resonate when worn in performance.
Both Uma and I were busy mums in 1992, with our firstborns leaving Prep and our second children preparing for playgroup and three-year-old kindergarten. International events reported via radio or television and often delayed by hours but the 1992 LA riots unforgettable because at the same time Australia was facing the reality of the Stolen Generation stories and alarming statistics of Aboriginal deaths in custody.
I expressed my anger and fears at Readings By The Bay, the monthly poetry and story readings held by Mordialloc Writers’ Group:
Our Burning Shame
Mairi Neil 1992
Rodney King – who gave you that name?
A “king’ in a black skin…
some will see the irony
or is it okay as a surname.
Is your destiny entwined
with that other dreamer?
The world watched in horror
as they beat you to the ground…
on the ground
into the ground.
The gang of four with official batons
grasped tightly, wielded as if warriors
beating your head
beating your body
beating your legs
Pounding, pounding, pounding…
a steady funeral dirge
burying the myth racial equality is accepted
Middle-class liberals gasped
horrified at the naked truth
other victims sighed with relief
the truth at last revealed.
Those with the power to change
shrugged away the fuss
A picture is worth a thousand words
a video worth a thousand affidavits
television news beamed across the nation
worth a thousand protests
an opportune political decision
worth a thousand votes
Time dimmed the anger and horror
even brutes deserve a trial…
innocent until proven guilty
but will Nuremberg be revisited?
We waited for the sentence
believing we knew the judgement
A jury without black faces
proved society is controlled
by red necks preferring white liars
who can live with red faces
Now Los Angeles burns –
along with our shame
those with real power
Cosmetics mask ugly faces
waspish capitalists sting
again and again and again…
Shocked Australians are horrified
yet reality reveals our guilt
when black deaths in custody
Our custodians of the law
don’t need lessons in brutality
we watched the scenes in LA
but closed minds
can be switched off
just like television sets
Will our cities burn
Now, of course, the time delay is only seconds. The 24Hour media cycle (circus?) barely gives us time to digest, never mind process, events. There are social media platforms and mobile devices offering no escape or relief, and ironically, the reality of ‘fake’ news.
After almost three decades I have to pause, reflect, and ask how much have attitudes and behaviour changed?
Will the wider dissemination of news and events via the Internet make people seek further knowledge, see a different perspective, consider a change in behaviour or attitude – or will it just cement their own truth and beliefs?
Across the room beside Sound Suits is Amelia Falling by Hank Willis Thomas, a most effective photographic image on a mirror and depicting Alabama 1965– I remember that too almost three decades before the LA Riots! :
Amelia Falling is derived from an archival photograph taken by photojournalist Spider Martin during the Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama in 1965…
… civil rights activist Amelia Boynton Robinson being carried by fellow marchers after having been gassed and beaten by State Troopers during what was intended to be a peaceful protest…
Willis Thomas states, ‘In a lot of my work I ask the viewer not to be passive but to actually think about active participation’.
What artwork will the Trump era produce – chronicle our despair, facilitate change or confront our shame?
Trumpeting Limericks To Let Off Steam
Mairi Neil, 2016
There once was a candidate Trump
elected by those who took hump
at moneyed elites
according to tweets
by Trump’s collective misogynist clump
He blew bigots up like a bicycle pump
‘deplorables’ swelled to a poisonous lump
forget about facts
diplomacy or tact
winning is all that matters to Trump
As the President-elect Donald Trump
sneered at women considered plump
his unleashed tongue
grotesque insults flung
Trump’s misogyny a cancerous lump
His presidency corrupt at the core
means the United States no more
anger and hate
an uncertain fate
Trump’s only about settling a score
He campaigned with deceit and lies
winning the penultimate prize
of course, he’s a fool
others actually rule
will the majority avert their eyes?
From Mexican artist Joaquin Segura we have Exercises on selective mutism, 2012:
In this piece the artist has recovered a found object – a canvas banner discarded in the aftermath of a protest in Mexico City – and transformed it into a minimalist sculpture by applying layers of white paint to its surface.
The attempt to cover up (literally ‘whitewash’) the banner’s political message is key to the work’s meaning… about efforts to silence, and render invisible, dissent – through omission, spreading misinformation and erasure – and a questioning of conceptual art’s potential to make political claims or to challenge authority.
I love writing Found Poetryand the last lesson for the term in my Writing Creativelyclass was exploring Found Poetry by reading a column in the local paper which collates local news snippets from a hundred years ago.
The exercise was challenging but productive and I hope the students polish the variety of poems they wrote.
Art can Confront, Challenge, move us from our Comfort Zone
Several other installations prompted discussions on a host of current media topics and various events we’d lived through.
Baby boomers have survived tumultuous, exciting times and have adapted to incredible change, especially the rise of the digital world. I’m glad there is still support for art you can touch, walk around, relate to and experience in real time, not just on screen.
Melbourne is rich with events to attend, particularly during holiday times and I never tire of the trip to the city – as a teacher of creative writing, particularly Life Stories & Legacies, cultural experiences and exhibitions offer a mine of information and material for lessons and ideas to write about, plus triggers for personal memories.
When we write about our past, it’s easy to look at memories as if through a fixed lens. Events and people, including self, coldly observed – especially childhood – embarrassments, failings, mistakes, sometimes enlarged or erased with hindsight, successes perhaps forgotten or if unrecognised at the time, now embellished. The telescope pointed at childhood fixed, and often others not consulted, so the memory, reliable or otherwise, is our own.
The immediate past and middle years, early adulthood onwards not so clear to categorise or to talk about – marriage, parenthood, working life – may still have ongoing repercussions – more likely family, friends and fellow travellers, still alive even if not active participants in your life.
The memories may be raw and traumatic and still needing some distance before reflection.
Our childhood distant, but not the experiences of our own children and their effect on our lives still being worked through, as are decisions that may have affected our health:
abandoning regular sport or dancing,
promotion at work,
reducing to part-time
or casual work,
de facto relationships,
… so many experiences and turning points to be written freely or honestly, or perhaps censored with ramifications fully understood.
Shared experiences, Interviewing friends, a Memoir Writer’s fodder
At the NGV, along with discussing the contents of the galleries, Uma and I chatted and remembered events of our forty years friendship. We both are the product of the first wave of feminism and both have daughters who we raised accordingly, hoping they would not go through some of the sexism and inequality we faced.
Uma, as a woman of colour, born in Malaysia, a country with a long history and acculturation from British colonialism, recognises she adapted to Australian society with relative ease compared to other migrants but we agree the conversations around #blacklivesmatter and #metoo are relevant to Australia and long overdue.
Proud to be Feminist
“You’ll love the Guerrilla Girls: Portfolio Compleat,” said Uma as she guided me to the next gallery.
Guerrilla Girls exhibition confronts gender inequality particularly in the creative fields, and because myself and both daughters (a filmmaker and a stop-motion animator) work in creative fields, Uma wanted me to see it.
We found ourselves sharing insights about subtle and not so subtle discrimination in a world that unfortunately still sees power wielded by the privileged, and in western society, the privileged are overwhelmingly white and male.
Uma confided that at work in the public service, even when she was in charge, as the manager or ‘boss’, she sat in the front row at conferences or prominent positions at meetings to be seen and she consciously spoke a little louder to be heard – a woman of colour, she had two hurdles to jump!
Guerrilla Girls is a group of anonymous feminist artists and activists who call themselves ‘the conscience of the art world’. Their posters, billboards, books, videos and live lectures use facts, humour and bold visuals to expose sexism and racism in politics, the art world and popular culture.
The collective formed in New York City in 1985 with the mission to bring gender and racial equality into focus within the greater arts community. The members protect their individual identities by wearing gorilla masks during public appearances and by adopting names of deceased female icons such as Edmonia Lewis, Kathe Kollwitz and Frida Kahlo.
Uma pointed to number four on the list of advantages of being a woman artist.
‘You have another 20 years,’ she said with a grin…
Many of the observations were witty and shocking but in today’s depressing political climate ‘stating the bloody obvious.
On the way to visit another special exhibition, we paused at random objects that caught our eye.
From ‘in your face’ feminism, to the eighteenth century, known for its enlightened philosophes (you’ll be forgiven for only knowing the names of the male intellectuals – Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Diderot, Hume…) because women were literally and figuratively trapped – in clothes that limited mobility, a society that denied rights and access to education:
The fashionable ideal for women in the eighteenth century comprised voluminous dresses, open at the front to reveal matching stomachers and petticoats, tall powdered clouds of hair and pointed buckled shoes. Skirts were widened with hoops or panniers to create an exaggerated hourglass silhouette that emphasised the natural waistline.
This work is known as a robe a la francaise (or sack-back gown), distinguishable by its sack-back of loose pleating and front robings trimmed with lace that conveys the luxury and ostentation of the period.
During the first half of the eighteenth century, fashionable women’s shoes for the upper and middle classes followed a common form. Straight and narrow with a pointed toe and thick-waisted heel, most were made of rich silk fabric and often had decorative trimmings known as passamaneria. This pair features exquisite metal thread bobbin lace made by braiding and twisting lengths of thread, further edged by strips of braid work. The shoes do not buckle but are worn with the latchets overlapping at the front.
How did they function?
I loved Georgette Heyer’s Regency and Georgian novels as a teenager and imagined floating around in muslin and silk dresses – a visit to a museum would have given me a reality check!
The research required for good historical fiction is painstaking and often clothes play a huge part in whether the story is believable, even more so for screenwriting.
I visited so many museums and galleries when I travelled and often looked at the displays and pondered the hours of labour to make the material, dress and shoes.
My aunt was a tailoress and my older sister an amazing seamstress too, she quilts, embroiders and does all manner of creative needlework. I know the effort and time hand sewing takes – mind-boggling!
However, the men and women hunched in candlelight, in rooms with little or no ventilation, sewing these glamorous gowns earned a pittance and history did not even record their names…
A Stitch in Time (a villanelle)
She sits sewing by dim lamplight
embroidered threads by her side
contented, happy, eyes shining bright.
In the stillness of evening light
needle and thread silently glide,
as she sits sewing by pale moonlight.
Cross-stitches, pattern small and tight
new techniques taken in her stride
contented, happy, eyes shining bright.
Her creativity in wondrous flight
imagination flows like the tide
as she sits sewing by candlelight.
Machines embraced despite Luddites
mass production becomes her guide
contentment gone, eyes no longer bright
History records seamstresses’ plight
workers stripped of all but pride
many still struggle in shadowed light
exploited, sad, eyes no longer bright.
A Day For All Things Domestic?
Uma was thrilled to come across an installation by an Indian born artist Subodh Gupta called Curry.
A wall displaying the various utensils used for cooking reminded Uma of growing up in Malaysia and observing her grandmother cooking. There were certain types of pots and pans, spoons and ladles found in every Indian household.
The tiffin boxes brought back memories for me too.
I first heard about tiffins and saw one when John and I became close friends with a workmate, Peter Cordeux who had been born and brought up in India as part of the British Army community.
Whenever we had parties, Peter and his wife Kathy brought a tiffin box filled with delicious curries and rice, which Peter always jokingly claimed he made.
Peter died in 2008, but his stories of growing up in India, holidaying in Pakistan and Afghanistan, being stationed in the Middle East, fighting in Malaya in 1948 during the “Insurgency,” and then the various jobs he had before migrating to Australia, including operating an ice cream van, introduced a whole new fascinating world.
His funny and serious tales reflected in those tiffin boxes! My girls loved their Uncle Peter and still miss him.
Cultural references resonate within the make-up of this artwork: the use of stainless steel in bowls, plates and cups is synonymous with the modernisation and economic development of India in the twentieth century.
Stainless steel replaced kansa (or bell metal, a brittle bronze featuring a high proportion of tin) in the 1950s and 1960s and came to transform the kitchen and eating utensils used in everyday life in India.
The nod to the multitudes of India is made in this work, where straightforward, comparatively small, individual elements are brought together at such a scale that they transcend their everyday nature.
A Writing Exercise
A common writing exercise for those writing family history or memoir is to look in cupboards and write about objects kept for sentimental reasons or as heirlooms. What is the story behind them? Why is it important to write their legacy?
Or write about and explain the value and attachment of everyday objects.
How were they acquired and is there a significant memory attached, like a birthday or anniversary, a travel story?
A trip to the NGV or the museum may help to trigger memories – this stainless steel display certainly did for me and Uma – as did the final special exhibition we walked through.
A Modern Life: Tablewares 1930s – 1980s
If you want to date or explain the provenance of that treasured plate or teapot, visit the NGV before 27 January 2019. You’ll have an enjoyable history lesson too and perhaps discover that valuable piece of crockery a la Antique Roadshow!
The layout of some of the displays to mirror popular designs, I found a bit overwhelming and busy, but certainly stunning and there is a great range of designers. So much detail to produce the humble cup and saucer.
Nowadays, in trendy places, you can be offered a jam jar to drink from and your meal served on a wooden board – or even given disposable crockery and cutlery!
Not so in previous decades.
Following the Second World war, societal changes resulted in the decline of domestic servants and many women going out to work. These changes, along with the growing enthusiasm for a modern lifestyle, prompted manufacturers to produce dining wares that were versatile, easily cared for and able to go from the oven to the table.
Postwar optimism also encouraged the development of new tableware forms that were decorated in bold colours and modernist patterns.
This exhibition explores the growing engagement with modern design by commercial manufacturers charting the application of technical innovations in production and decorative techniques in pursuit of commercially competitive products.
Whilst focusing on ceramics, the exhibition also explores the use of new materials resulting from wartime technological advances including plastic, aluminium and stainless steel.
As we walked around the cabinets so many memories were triggered. Personal family stories, especially memories of our mothers and the impact of their preferences, tastes and habits on our own behaviour shopping, cooking, serving meals.
Memories of setting up house in the 80s – scrounging furniture, crockery and utensils to build a home.
Uma was surprised to hear I’d worked in Johnson’s Pottery in the 70s – in fact all members of my family, apart from my young sister, worked in the Croydon factory, producing Australia’s best-known tableware.
Dad was a kiln man for ten years, my mother worked on the pinning bench preparing the holders for the pottery to be fired, my brothers were kiln boys helping load and unload the kiln cars and clearing up debris, sorting and stacking; my sister worked in the decorating section and I inspected the finished products and also worked in the office during the traditional three-week Christmas shut-down period.
When the factory closed for maintenance, the only person running the office was Mr Stephen Johnson, the boss and owner before Wedgewood bought the company. Teenage me on university holidays was hired to answer the telephone and type letters.
At the time Johnsons negotiated special deals with shops like GJ Coles, David Jones and Myer – they chose a specific design that became their exclusive tableware. I took a call from the famous GJ Coles who was a personal friend of Mr Stephen’s and made afternoon tea for the many suited gentlemen who visited to seal agreements for the coming year.
I can remember the fuss when Johnsons moved away from traditional whiteware and made their first stoneware as they tried to compete with imports from Japan.
Technology and mass production has made a lot of household items disposable but access to good quality tableware used to be prized – the first complete set of tableware for many being the traditional wedding present of a dinner set.
Most of my family, myself included, had a dinner set gifted as a wedding present. I have a couple of plates, the remnants of the wedding present to my grandparents and parents. Bone China still cherished and on show in cabinets in the homes of many of my generation.
John’s sister in England has a magnificent collection of blue and white pottery (Delftware) and Royal Albert and Royal Doulton Bone China, but the coffee sets and tableware in this exhibition very much examples of the everyday pieces that may not survive intact if their purpose and design enjoyed rather than displayed!
The bold colours of the 70s and 80s obvious and I’m sure similar pieces can be found in Opportunity shops as my generation declutter.
I don’t think young people today place the same value on many of the possessions older generations had to use a greater percentage of their disposable income to acquire.
I can recall seeing the famous blue Willow pattern for the first time when I came to Australia in 1962. We stayed with a cousin of Dad’s and that was the pattern of her everyday dishes. I fell in love with the oriental scenes, my imagination working overtime as usual because I’ve always had a fascination with China.
In the early days of living in Mordialloc, one of the retail chains had a sale of Blue Willow pattern crockery and I bought a set.
When the girls were young, they too ate their cereal from Willow-patterned bowls. I’ll have to ask them if the scenes had any impact on them – I’m pretty sure their answer will be no.
But perhaps in the future, looking back on their childhood or wandering through an art gallery or museum with a friend…
For Auld Lang Syne
I’m lucky to have several dear friends to enjoy the present and some have shared the immediate and not so distant past – the part of life we often struggle to write about in terms of memory and reflection.
Talking about shared experiences or interviewing friends about a particular event can help with perspective when the desire or in some cases, an urgency to record a life for family members or the general community arises.
There are three classes into which all the women past seventy that ever I knew were to be divided: 1. That dear old soul; 2. That old woman; 3. That old witch.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
A couple of centuries have passed since Coleridge made that statement about ‘old women’. I’m heading towards seventy and some friends are there already and we’d all agree he got it wrong.
We may still be fighting for gender equality, and ageism is a reality, but thankfully Coleridge and the other Romantic Poets with patriarchal and sexist views are only around in print and any modern poet expressing similar views will have to contend with shaming by Guerrilla Girls!
I loved my day out with Uma and look forward to catching up with other friends ‘of a certain age’ and intend to enjoy lots of the available activities in October as we celebrate how great it is to be a senior in Melbourne.
The above quote by Sir Winston Churchill played out today as Australia’s Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull was finally removed by the internal bickering of his own political party!
This is the second time he has lost the leadership and of course, he has done the same to opponents, notably former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, which I wrote about in a previous post in 2015.
I wrote about being glued to the television news coverage and being a political junkie – well the last few days have been deja vu!
Malcolm Turnbull smarter than Tony Abbott, or just a better tactician, pre-empted an assassination attempt, but after a torturous few days for the public, finally lost and Scott Morrison is now the 30th prime minister of Australia.
Poetry A Good Outlet To Express Feelings
There’s an old saying – if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry… I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling frustrated, bewildered, and angry at the behaviour of the current Liberal politicians and the latest stunt really is beyond belief considering there are so many important issues the voters are worried about…
However, laughter can be the best medicine – or playing with words and writing silly verses can get rid of the anger.
Humour works well in poems, many poets use irony. Repetition and rhyme are great tools too. Added to rhythm and choosing a great subject you could be on a winner like Dr Seuss!
I certainly enjoyed myself manipulating words and making up limericks and clerihews about the hapless lot currently masquerading as our government. Some are unprintable.
Canberra’s Shenanigans Fodder for Cartoonists but also Poets
A Limerick is a rhymed humorous or nonsense poem of five lines which originated in Limerick, Ireland. The Limerick has a set rhyme scheme of :
a-a-b-b-a with a syllable structure of: 9-9-6-6-9.
The rhythm of the poem should go as follows: Lines 1, 2, 5: weak, weak, STRONG, weak, weak, STRONG, weak, weak, STRONG, weak, weak Lines 3, 4: weak, weak, STRONG, weak, weak, STRONG, weak, weak…
Part of the charm of the limerick is the surprise, the sudden swoop and unexpected twist of the last line. Like the nursery rhyme, many limericks attack the authority of the church, lampoon politicians and are great outlets for protest.
Limericks Record a Week of Political Lunacy
Liberal MPs are rogue again
flushing their PM down the drain
up to power-grab tricks
these self-absorbed pricks
behave as if they are all insane
Malcolm Turnbull has said his ‘Goodbye’
was it only yesterday he said, ‘Hi’?
LNP politics rough
you have to be so tough
‘Cos their loyalty’s in short supply
‘Jobs & Growth’ a slogan, not reality
like all Libs Mal lacks mendacity
a Top Hat forever
his spins are quite clever
Pity he lacks political morality
Tony Abbott always lurked up the back
unforgiving for getting the sack
revenge best served up cold
Biding time to be bold
Then use Dutton to lead an attack
Dud Dutton mistimed Tony’s planned coup
this decision supporters will rue
many thought they had won
dirty deed all but done
till the numbers reduced to a few!
And like Judas, ScoMo can betray
volunteering to save Turnball’s day
with his hyena-like smile
he has prayed for awhile
and been lying in wait for his prey.
Bishop’s catwalks will now be the past
Poor Julie has deputised her last
and her fixating glare
all gone when her power lunge crashed
Vic MP Greg Hunt rates a mention
No obvious crude rhyme my intention
suffice let me just say
he’s a rat by the way
and deserves careful close attention.
Small ‘l’ Liberals today were trounced
the results of the ballot announced
Dutton’s supporters lost
stability the cost
methinks dastardly deals made with Faust
Josh Freydenberg, ScoMo’s deputy
that may be a strain on fidelity
is there love in his soul
for the mining of coal –
or NEG disappear, plus integrity?
Whoever you vote for, be warned
Peoples’ choices too often scorned
In Canberra’s bubble
Egos foment trouble
Integrity frequently deformed.
What about all those Labor pollies
Scarred by the memory of follies
Libs continually try
But Bill Shorten won’t die
Perhaps that sent them off their trolleys!
You Too Can Clerihew
A Clerihew (or clerihew) is a very specific kind of short humorous verse, typically with the following properties:
It is biographical and usually whimsical, showing the subject from an unusual point of view;
but it is hardly ever satirical, abusive or obscene;
It has four lines of irregular length (for comic effect);
The first line consists solely (or almost solely) of a well-known person’s name.
PM Malcolm Turnbull
must feel a bit of a fool
thought he had power
but his party turned sour
Scott Morrison won
leadership squabbles no fun
reflecting on the past
he must wonder will it last?
Ex-cop Peter Dutton
Should order some mutton
like potatoes, he’s mashed
prime ministerial hopes smashed.
Labor’s Bill Shorten
votes must be sortin’
perhaps three-word slogans seeking
‘ScoMo must go’ worth tweaking
Clerihews are funny poems you write about specific people and you don’t have to worry about counting syllables or words, and you don’t even have to worry about the rhythm of the poem.
You don’t have to limit yourself to writing clerihews about people you know. You can write clerihews about people you have never met but it works best if you write about someone who is well known, or who at least is known to your readers/audience.
Politicians and celebrities ideal!
Hollywood Mel Gibson’s home
Where many Aussies like to roam
Mad Max and Braveheart a winning streak
Pity his true character’s so bleak
But you don’t have to limit your clerihews to real people. You can write about characters from books, movies, comics, and cartoons.
Poems can have many different purposes, e.g. to amuse, to entertain, to reflect, to convey information, to tell a story, to share knowledge or to pass on cultural heritage. Some forms of poetry are associated with certain purposes, e.g. prayers to thank, celebrate, praise; advertising jingles to persuade; limericks to amuse.
Some of the most satisfying lessons I have are when we try different types of poetry in class. Not all the students agree with me or even like poetry but they always make tremendous efforts and write amazing poems!
Let’s agree poetry is a way
for words to live in print
Wordsmiths have their say
Sometimes it’s a bit of fun
doggerel, childish ditties,
satire, irony, – even a pun
Practicality can be boring
romance is better in verse
poetry sets emotion soaring
Memories collect and grow
nostalgia breeds a poem
subverting what we know!
Terse verse a picture paints limericks, clerihews, lunes ridicules sinners and saints
Messages in greeting cards galore
Quatrains, rhymes, free verse
jingles, psalms, songs and more.
I can’t imagine poetry’s demise
this wonderful chameleon genre
Its devices will always surprise
I have a wonderful student who has been coming to my classes for more than 18 years – she is now 89 years old. I love her poetry, her attitude toward life and treasure the poems she has written about me!
Limericks & Rhyme
There once was a tutor called Neil
Who fervently made an appeal
To all in her class
To get off their backsides
And write with some fervour and zeal
It’s hard to write in rhyming verse
When one is used to prose
But when your tutor suggests you try
You had better – I suppose.
There once was a bard from Avon
Whom many have thought a right con
Some said he wrote verse
But others were terse
Claiming he’d never catch on.
Poking Fun At Pollies
Poor old Bronwyn bit the dust
After that chopper ride
Even Abbott deserted her
But no-one even cried.
Mr Palmer’s very rich
He always ate big meals
Bit off more than he could chew
With dubious mineral deals.
Malcolm Turnbull goes by tram
Anyone know why?
Even Google is nonplussed
As certainly am I.
Malcolm was Republican
Until the Hard Right to a man
Forced him in another mould.
Now he does as he is told.
That last stanza of Heather’s written in 2016 – insightful!
Form Poetry Can be Fun
I usually teach poetry by introducing various forms first – templates and structures help people if they have never tried to write poetry or have a fixed idea of what poetry ‘should be’.
Take a TRIOLET
A triolet is an eight line poem or stanza with a set rhyme scheme. Line four and line seven are the same as line one, and line eight is the same as line two. The rhyme scheme is ABaAabAB.
line 1 – A
line 2 – B
line 3 – a
line 4 – A (line 1)
line 5 – a
line 6 – b
line 7 – A (line 1)
line 8 – B (line 2)
Here is my wonderful Heather again… commenting on our class attempting Triolets from visual prompts…
This here is a Triolet
Stuff the guy who thought them up
A masochistic fool I bet
This here is a Triolet
Just as well we never met
‘cos on his ‘brains’ I’d sup
This here is a Triolet
Stuff the guy who thought them up
Tori’s got the chicken card
I don’t think that’s fair
How can I be champion bard?
Tori’s got the chicken card
I am trying really hard
Pulling each grey hair
Tori’s got the chicken card
I don’t think that’s fair.
Everyone’s still writing
Furrowed brows the deal
Too engaged for chatting
Everyone’s still writing
Are their rhyme fish biting
to please dear Mairi Neil
Everyone’s still writing
Furrowed brows the deal
And because this post is about politics and poetry I’ll end with one of mine and perhaps a message to ‘that mob in Canberra’ who are so entitled and ego-driven they have forgotten why they are there!
Democracy requires some thought
The right to vote so dearly won.
Truth and Integrity can’t be bought
Democracy requires some thought
Election promises with lies fraught
Politicians desperately seek the sun
Democracy requires some thought
The right to vote so dearly won!
No doubt there will be an election sooner rather than later and we can get the chance to vote and teach them a lesson!
One of my favourite places to visit in Melbourne is the Immigration Museum and last month I caught the final day of a magnificent exhibition on the life of Mahatma Gandhi – one of the greatest men ever to live and whose teachings and life informed, enriched and inspired me.
A great activist who changed the shape of our world by advocating for tremendous social change and justice years before Lenin formed his Bolshevik faction and before Mao Zedong embraced revolutionary ideals.
The 20th century had just begun when Gandhi developed his theories and put into practice a campaign of non-violent resistance to injustice.
Today is World Humanitarian Day (WHD). It is held every year on 19 August to bring attention to the millions of people around the world who are affected by crisis and conflict and pay tribute to aid workers who risk their lives in humanitarian service and to rally support for people affected by crises around the world.
A fitting day to honour the life of Gandhi and to thank my parents for their influence and guidance in believing social change can and must happen if we want a more just and equitable world.
In my Life Stories & Legacies Class, I often ask the students to write about their beliefs and values and reflect on who and what influenced and perhaps still influences them.
To reflect on how much their parents, teachers, the books they read, personal experiences and current events shape their core beliefs and actions.
A week where Gandhi’s ability to dissolve prejudice in others and inspire courage to act and practise what we preach was sorely needed.
World Humanitarian Day 2018
“Around the world, conflict is forcing record numbers of people from their homes, with over 65 million people now displaced. Children are recruited by armed groups and used to fight. Women are abused and humiliated. As humanitarian workers deliver aid and medical workers provide for those in need, they are all too often targeted or treated as threats.”
Only 1% of the 25 million people who have fled as refugees are ever resettled.
Gandhi believed we are all citizens of the world, unbound by exclusive loyalties of race or creed or class. He became renowned for shedding attachment to material things and at the end of his life, his only worldly possessions were his sandals, watch, glasses, a couple of spoons and bowls and a book of songs!
If only more people believed in such a universal society rather than nationalistic divisions, many more refugees and displaced people would be resettled.
The exhibition at the Immigration Museum approached telling Gandhi’s story by first introducing Gandhi as an immigrant. Indeed the forming of his philosophy to campaign for change in a non-violent way began when he lived and worked in South Africa and suffered discrimination because of his skin colour and ethnicity.
The exhibition combined digital and non-digital storytelling and made good use of extracts from the 1982 Richard Attenborough film, Gandhi and archival footage from documentaries and newsreels. At least Ben Kingsley, the actor chosen to play Gandhi, is of Indian heritage, his father being Gujarati and Ben’s birth name, Krishna Bhanji.
The books I bought and read about Gandhi acquired in the 1970s and it was great to refresh my memory and immerse myself in exceptionally well-laid out exhibits.
Gandhi’s Early Life
Incident At Pietermaritzburg, South Africa
Many people can point to a pivotal moment or event that either changed their attitude or thinking or forced them to change the direction they were heading in life.
Gandhi’s moment was outrage at the unjust humiliation of being ejected from the train despite having a ticket, and being ejected and roughly treated because he was ‘coloured’.
He had a long, cold night to sit in the waiting room and reflect on his undignified treatment and the general status of non-whites in South Africa. His legal training and political beliefs must have worked overtime as he imagined and planned an effective response – and considered the bigger picture, especially in relation to India under British rule.
The year my father was born (1922), Gandhi was actively promoting his doctrine of passive resistance and making headlines in newspapers. My Scottish grandfather (Papa) was well-read for a working-class man and actively involved in the trade union movement. No doubt he followed the stories of Gandhi when he visited England in 1931 and promoted peaceful negotiation of conflict.
Fighting and Marching For Equal Rights in South Africa
In 1913 the Cape Supreme Court ruled that only marriages performed under the Christian rites could be recognised. With the stroke of a pen, all Hindu, Muslim, Zoroastrian, and other religious marriages were nullified.
This judgement added to long-standing grievances of the Indian community including the three-pound tax on ex-indentured labourers and the law prohibiting Indians from crossing state borders.
Several Indian women, including Gandhi’s wife Kasturba, declared their intention to seek arrest until the judgement was overturned.
Gandhi advised two separate parties of women, the Phoenix Party and Transvaal Sisters, to cross the Natal border and break the law. They were then to urge the people of Natal to join Satyagraha and not reveal their names and addresses upon arrest.
The Phoenix Party was arrested at the border and sent to a hard labour prison for three months in Pietermaritzburg Jail. The Transvaal sisters, however, positioned themselves in Newcastle, Natal without arrest. Their influence spread quickly among the indentured labourers, helping incite massive strikes.
In 1915, Gandhi returned to India and continued to transform himself and the movement towards independence.
The exhibition had several display cabinets with a selection of traditional Indian clay figures, dating from the 1860s and 1880s, to provide a beautiful if at times idealised, representation of the human diversity of Gandhi’s India.
They included fine examples from the famous 19th century Indian workshops of Krishnanagar, Lucknow and Pune. These artefacts have rarely been seen in Australia since many were displayed in the Indian Court at the 1880 Melbourne International exhibition at the Royal Exhibition Building.
I have several friends and have had students who migrated here from India and my daughters have school chums who were born here from immigrant parents but like most people, I probably underestimate the sheer size and diversity of India geographically as well as population-wise.
The clay figures displayed from the Krishnangar, Lucknow and Pune regions, 1860s-1880s. (Museum Victoria Collection) Also figures from Mumbai.
Various people and occupations represented:
everyday men, poor villager, ‘Palanquin’ carrying army officer, washerman (dhobi), female labourer, office messenger (peon), woman of high rank, drummer, Parsi (Zoroastrian) house servant, Hindu writer, priestess begging for Hindu goddess Kali, musician, cloth dealer’s servant, woman spinning yarn, Muslim man, priest for Hindu goddess Kali, horse keeper (ghorawalla), Hindu clerk, dancer (nautch girl), goldsmith (sonawalla), man carrying bundles, merchant (banian), woman from mercantile class, Parsi (Zoroastrian) gentleman, Hindu tailor, Brahmin woman, policeman, domestic ‘half-caste’ worker (ayah), Muslim gentleman, agricultural female worker (ryot), priest, Muslin cloth seller, potter at wheel, fruit seller, water carrier, horse groom, Bengali man, teacher (pundit), woman wearing lace shawl, seated priest sewing, poor villager.
Clay figure modelling in India
Clay figure modelling has been widely practised in India for hundreds of years. Models of humans, animals and scenes from everyday life have been used for worship, as toys, ornamentation and for ethnographic purposes. A gradual shift towards naturalism in clay figure modelling in certain regions increased during the 18th century with the arrival of Western traders, European settlers and planters who took souvenirs home from India.
While the manufacture of traditional clay toys and religious idols continued, the manufacture of naturalistic clay models was centred in the regions of Krishnanagar, Lucknow and Pune. The establishment of government art schools in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay (now Mumbai) during the late 19th century further increased European influence on the various styles of clay modelling.
The advent of international exhibitions, the first held in London in 1851, saw an increasing interest in the peoples, customs and traditions of the non-Western world. The established tradition of clay figure modelling in India was an obvious way to represent an often idealised Indian people, life and culture.
What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”
Salt March was Right Against Might…
On 6 April 1930, Gandhi and his followers produced salt on the shores of Dandi, breaking the Salt Law. Time magazine declared Gandhi the “Man of the Year’ in 1930 and more than 1300 newspapers around the world reported the Salt March.
In June 2011, Time magazine declared the Salt March as the second most influential protest in the world.
My parents were married the year Gandhi was assassinated (1948) and after living through the tragedy and horror of WW2, my father threw himself into the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and like many others, he was certainly inspired by Gandhi.
When I was a child I can remember the conversations of adults who visited our home and the discussions between my parents about the merits of various methods to effect change.
One name was often mentioned – Mahatma Gandhi, an activist who changed the shape of the world by encouraging people to fight for change by non-violent civil disobedience.
In the 1930s, Gandhi’s main concern was for the untouchables, whom he called the Harijans or Children of God. He strongly campaigned against systems of privilege and deliberately did the cleaning duties, particularly the cleaning of toilets, considered the duties of the untouchables.
The removal of the worst features of the caste system occupied him during this decade.
He transformed his own ashram at Sabarmati into a centre for training untouchables and edited a paper called Harijan, contributing most of his later writings.
The Brotherhood of All Religions
Gandhi was a deeply spiritual person who believed religion was a private matter and that each person made their own approach to God. Any attempt to create a religious state unacceptable as was any other way of differentiation between people.
His life-threatening fasts to achieve a goal legendary, and none more so than towards the end of his life when inter-communal massacres at the time of India’s liberation derailed a smooth transition to independence.
His attempt to solve the religious divisions, notably the divide between Hindu and Muslim led to a pilgrimage through the most troubled regions. Sadly, he died at the hands of a religious fanatic and his dream of a society without social or religious discrimination died too.
Gandhi Championed a Simple Life
Gandhi worked hard on a practical level to rehabilitate and promote the Indian village, reviving agriculture, industry, education and other features of the rural culture of India. He believed his vision of communal reconciliation and a thorough reformation of Indian society at this basic level would benefit everyone. he had a desire to turn the tribes of India into self-supporting farmers.
The combination of good farming and craftsmanship would ensure a sufficient but not luxurious life.
A spinning wheel similar to the one he used and an example of spun cotton was on display. Gandhi never asked anyone to do anything he did not and he spent 15 minutes spinning every day – his meditation time – a therapeutic exercise he recommended.
Gandhi’s ideas came with strong moralistic and anarchistic leanings.
‘The State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form… self-government means continuous effort to be free of government control, whether it is foreign, or whether it is national… The ideally non-violent state will be an ordered anarchy.’
Women he regarded as the most exploited class of India, next to untouchables. He believed men and women were complementary – equal in status, but different in function. He campaigned for the abolition of purdah, child marriage and all customs that discriminated against women.
He believed that once women were liberated from male exploitation they would develop a high degree of sexual restraint and solve India’s population problem without other birth control methods, which he saw as an encouragement to indulgences.
Gandhi’s ideas and action challenged and changed our way of thinking.
A complex, courageous man who continually transformed himself to remain engaged with the times and true to his ideals.
Most of the protest movements that followed his death and liberation struggles in other countries whether it was the civil rights movement in the USA, anti-nuclear and anti-Vietnam marches, the campaign against racial discrimination and Apartheid or a free Tibet – all owe a great deal to Gandhi’s legacy.
At the end of May, I went to Melbourne University to hear the AN Smith Memorial Lecture sponsored by Melbourne University’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, School of Culture and Communication, part of the Faculty of Arts. They always have interesting speakers but this year, especially so, because it was Walter “Robby” Robinson from the Boston Globe.
Most of us were first introduced to Robby through the movie Spotlight – his character played by Michael Keaton. The Boston Globe is the newspaper that disclosed the systemic sexual abuse of children within the Catholic Church in the Boston Diocese and the culture of protecting paedophile priests by the hierarchy of that church.
The topic relevant in today’s Australia (and indeed throughout the world) after the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse set up by the Gillard Government and a redress scheme for the survivors currently being negotiated by the Turnbull Government.
Introduced as a journalist whose career has spanned 34 countries, 48 out of 50 of the United States while working under four different presidents and covering one and a half wars, Robbie looked suitably humble as an eager audience applauded a long and loud welcome.
He began by stating that Boston and Melbourne were sister cities. When there was little reaction he said, ‘Am I the only one who knows that?’ which provoked laughter. (I must admit I didn’t know that!)
Can democracy survive without a strong aggressive press?
Before coming here, he researched Melbourne and read about our ex-mayor. He remembered an interview with Doyle in the USA a few years ago when he encouraged tourists by suggesting when Americans visit they have a great time with their credit cards. With sarcasm, Robbie said, ‘That alone is a good reason to go back to cash.’
He acknowledged and praised three Australian journalists in the room who had exposed child abuse: Louise Milligan, Joanne McCartney and Paul Kennedy.
He had been interviewed and asked to comment on the case of Archbishop Wilson and because it was still before the courts declined to refer to him by name. He was glad Archbishop Wilson was found guilty but unfortunately, the comment he made about him going to prison produced an ABC headline that did not match his careful comments.
It was corrected a couple of days later after he complained but Robby believes the initial reporting is symptomatic of headlines being used as click-bait or sensationalism!
For him, holding the powerful accountable for their actions and the truth is the responsibility of good journalists.
Currently, the Pope and USA President suggest they are both humble men – we know this by the Pope’s actions and the fact the President tells us repeatedly.
(Muted laughter followed this comment and I think it would be reasonable to say finding a supporter for Trump in the room would be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack!)
The Boston Globe and Spotlight
Robby then launched into an explanation of the investigation he is most famous for and the background/inspiration to the film Spotlight.
He asserted there was an international conspiracy in covering up child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church – right up to the Pope and powerful others.
There is an international conspiracy regarding Trump but in his eyes, it is caused by the journalists and investigators being stubborn about seeking the truth.
Catholicism is a major religion in the USA and Australia. About 20% of the population identify as Catholics but not all go to church.
In 1972, Robby covered the Vietnam War but the horror of the Spotlight story won’t leave him alone –
he discovered there is evil within the Catholic Church and frequently that Church will do something to replenish this. His sense of outrage is never exhausted!
When men working in the Lord’s shadow cast children into hell there is not ‘two sides to every story’.
Accountability is now being taken up to high authority in Australia but not in the USA. In the USA the system is overly deferential to the powerful.
2002 – the story broke following five months chipping at a granite wall because the Roman Catholic church had ready access to all levels of political power.
They were able to make documents disappear from court files. They sat on the shoulders of the Boston elite because in Boston half the population is nominally Catholic.
The journalists accessed 10,000 pages on the one priest – Father John Geoghan, the main subject of Spotlight the movie. Once it was available, within two weeks 105 victims came forward, 400 were in the shadows.
It was revealed Geoghan had been shuffled to six parishes in 30 years!
This proved the Church’s first priority was to avoid public scandal.
Nowhere in the 10,000 pages of reports was there one mention of the children’s welfare. The Church never called the police.
The children didn’t matter!
Documents revealed 10.8% of priests were reported in 60 years – over 250 priests in Boston had molested children. Robby believes if, in any diocese, there is under 8% reported then a cover-up is still happening!
The Cardinal of Boston knew the predators but let them stay as priests until retirement. Bishops and Cardinals internationally all play from the same script.
There are reciprocal arrangements to send priests elsewhere.
They are expert at hiding abuse and protecting priests.
It is refreshing to see Australia is calling to account those in power who knew. He is following Archbishop Pell’s case closely.
When the Boston Globe covered the story it was the dawn of the Internet Age, their stories went viral and victims from all around the country and the world telephoned or emailed them – even from Australia
Pre 2002 there was no wildfire – the power of the Internet got the story noticed nationally and internationally, immediately.
Technology precipitated and has participated in journalism’s financial free fall.
Yes, the Internet spread the story but the Internet has damaged investigative journalism. In the first redundancies, staff went from 550 to 500, the second round another 30 went, and another buy out of the Boston Globe will reduce its size more.
Links in the chain are missing now when it comes to reporting. Many jobs like the court reporting jobs don’t exist. It was the court reporter that first alerted the team to the story.
However, the Spotlight Team initially were four reporters, now they are eleven, including two editors.
Their story showed that people value investigative reporting more than anything – even sport. Readers want reporting that holds the powerful accountable!
The Boston Globe owner is a billionaire. He doesn’t want to make a profit but he’s also not into losing money. Since the Internet half of the journalistic jobs have vanished 25,000 reporters gone.
Along, Came Trump…
“He speaks with conviction, knowing nothing, and without saying anything.”
The tradition of The Anonymous Source is important – we learned that other unstable world leader cancelled the summit (and then it was on again).
November 2016 when Trump started to attack the New York Times and other papers claiming fake news they had one and a half million digital subscribers – now it is 3 million – people want to read a paper they can trust.
Obama used the Espionage Act to flush out whistleblowers but blinked to protect press freedom. Trump thinks journalistsare scum – he may not blink!
He marginalises and demonises journalists.
He is going after Amazon because the owner of Amazon owns the Washington Post
He reads fewer books than other presidents have written.
Winston Churchill said a free press dangerous – not for ordinary citizens!
Lying is the message of Putin and Trump –lie blatantly to assert power over truth itself.
Remember Trump had the crowd yell ‘you lock them up’ or ‘lock Hillary up’ – his mantra
It is the role of the press to protect the public from the excesses of government, not the role of government to protect the supposed excesses of journalism.
Warren Buffett has predicted printed newspapers will vanish; home delivered papers will be as rare as buggy whips.
Quality over Quantity
Remember the four characteristics of media writing
Robby fears the quality of a lot of online journalism – it’s about generating clicks and contains a lot of spin…
In the USA the First Amendment has lost some of its lustre
The Globe doesn’t cover court cases anymore yet that was the origin of the Spotlight investigation.
The Cable News Network attractive to the public yet dangerous if the only source of news
He believes in a future for investigative reporting but will it do any good can they breathe life into a calcifying democracy?
Democracy is in decline, people are taking freedom for granted.
In the American 2016 Election, 93,047,000 didn’t show up and of 183 million who voted many were ill-informed.
Corruption Unnoticed is Corruption Unchecked
Louise Milligan one of the journalists from the ABC who has reported on child abuse in Australia asked about the confidentiality of the White House briefing. When things are said ‘in confidence’ to a room full of journalists why aren’t they reported when they are in the public’s interest?
Robby admitted that it started with Kissinger under Nixon and ‘everybody hates it’. A horrible tradition. It is a way for senior officials to share whatever secrets or knowledge they have and they’re worried about. But they won’t say it in public – and no journalist will break the tradition – apart from the ‘anonymous Whitehouse spokesperson’ perhaps …
A journalism student asked: Has paedophilia within the church stopped or is the next generation carrying it on?
Robby gave an example of Brazil.
Ten times as many priestswere exposed in Boston than Brazil,yet compare those numbers to the size of the Catholic Church and population in Brazil.
The current Pope who is South American took steps regarding the Bishops in Chile but there are many Catholic countries where nothing has been done yet.
This Pope is determinedto get the Bishops out of their limousines and the Cardinals out of their Cadillacs but will he be prepared to clean out every single bishop and archbishop?
The Effects of Writing About Child Abuse Do Not Go away
How do you protect yourself from second-hand trauma when reporting on a case like this?
Robby’s answer, ‘Not well!’
His wife, a nurse, and she believes the Spotlight team all suffered PTSD. He is still affected emotionally by the stories – he couldn’t relate one tonight because he knew he would break down. “Maybe I should see a counsellor.”
His honesty about the stress and emotional pain of investigating and reporting the story important to share. I often wonder about the journalists who cover horrific murders or war and disaster stories. There are some images or experiences you can never forget. How do you return to normal life?
Another student asked a question about Rupert Murdoch and Fox News, which is increasingly a mouthpiece for the Whitehouse and Trump.
Robby’s suggestion, “People should wean themselves off cable news!” It is corrupt and they are a powerful potent force. They don’t report news but tell stories and have stories about the news…
If you want to improve journalism and keep it alive you must support the newspapers who still do their job.
I checked my old journalist course notes from when I did my Masters in Writing:
Broadcast news emphasizes the superficial rather than the substantive. It’s too short and too shallow. Pictures or audio drive the story. Critics say broadcast news reporters often pick out the sensational or the most unusual aspect of a story to emphasize rather than what is the most important. “If it bleeds, it leads.”
Broadcast news writers depend on clichés rather than information, particularly to end their stories. Many reporters find an ending that says in effect, “Who knows?” or “We’ll have to wait and see” convenient for ending a story.
For years, the reporter who covered the Supreme Court for National Public Radio would end her stories about cases before the court by saying, “A decision is expected by next summer.” That sentence – besides containing a passive verb construction – tells us nothing since most Supreme Court cases are decided before the court recesses for the summer.
It Takes Resources To Pay Good Investigative Journalists
Robby subscribes to the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and he suggests when you read The Guardian send them money like he does. (This got a large round of applause!)
Robby teaches journalism and has done for the last ten years
He believes there will always be good jobs for good students and he finds his students are excited about the digital age and the different platforms available. They are hopeful and not surrounded by doom and gloom.
It used to be when people came to the Newsroom, the old hands taught the new reporters, now it is the young ones teaching all the old Journosthe new technology!
Information in a free society is a valuable commodity the next generation will monetise it.
When asked if the Pope is a reforming pope, Robby said he thinks the Pope is wanting to bring an end to clerical culture, the person must come first and he is trying to get the church elite out of their limousine lifestyles.
But change within a church or a religion takes generations and Robby fears it will never make it in several lifetimes.
He is a Catholic and he thought he’d be buried by the church but he is very much a lapsed Catholic and now a golf tragic…
An interesting lecture providing great discussion points for conversation on the way home.
Yesterday afternoon as part of the City of Kingston’s Refugee Week I attended a screening of Jolyon Hoff’s film The Staging Post – a remarkable film that leaves an indelible mark on your heart.
The moving story of the creation of a school and the building of a cohesive community shows a different aspect of the lives of refugees awaiting processing in Indonesia.
I don’t know whether it will change hardened opinions about our government’s refugee policy but it does confront and challenge and it definitely adds to our knowledge by telling a story not widely known!
This year, Refugee Week, held from Sunday 17 June to Saturday 23 June, aims to raise awareness about the issues affecting refugees and to celebrate the positive contributions they make to Australian society. (There are over 800,000 Australians who were once refugees!)
The film screening plus a scrumptious afternoon tea was held at Shirley Burke Theatre in Parkdale, a comfortable venue for the film and the Q and A session afterwards with the director Jolyon Hoff. A stark contrast to the lives of the thousands of refugees throughout the world who can’t help but feel nobody wants them when you see the news clips and read many of the comments on social media!
A Positive Ageing representative from Kingston’s Access and Equity Committee welcomed the audience and introduced Jolyon. Joanne mentioned it was World Refugee Day and this year the theme was “With Refugees.”
Words And How Stories Are Told Matter
When you hear the word refugee what images spring to mind?
Rohingya in their hundreds and thousands trekking through jungle mud,
boat people from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka or Iraq arriving in Australia and suiciding in mandatory detention,
Africans floundering in the oceans off Italy,
camps in Jordan with miles of tents,
crying women and children at the Mexican and U.S.A. border,
crowds of young men rioting in Germany,
ramshackle cities in Calais and numerous other towns … ?
Do you think the terms asylum seeker, refugee, illegal immigrants, migrants are interchangeable?
Naming is a choice, the words we use – especially the words our political representatives and media choose – are important.
The choice reflects not just perspective on how and why people have begun a journey, but who the people are and their rights. It especially says a lot about the speaker or writer’s opinion towards the people they are describing, and their knowledge or lack thereof.
By choosing to describe asylum seekers as illegal immigrants, economic migrants, or boat people it is easy for politicians to justify denying refugees basic human rights and classify them as less deserving of help.
Define A Refugee
A refugee is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country … ”
The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees
The word refugee comes from French and was first used in the modern context following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which sent the Protestant Huguenots to flee the religious persecution by the French King Louis XIV.
There have been many pograms, persecutions, wars, land clearances, and oppression since.
For most of us, it was the horrendous displacement of people caused by WW2 that has cemented ideas and images in our mind about who or who isn’t a refugee and whether there is empathy for them as opposed to the fear, distrust and contempt that many populist leaders exploit.
The Director’s Introduction
Jolyon came to the story 4-5 years ago when living in Jakarta with his family because of his wife’s work. In 2013, the news broadcast the Australian Government’s latest ‘detention overseas’ policy by announcing anyone arriving by boat would be detained offshore in Manus or Nauru islands; they re-instated mandatory offshore detention.
He realised that in the 15 years of asylum seekers being in the news he had never met one.
He wondered who are these people and why do they want to come to Australia?
He decided to visit where refugees gathered, ostensibly to arrange to make deals with people smugglers and get to Christmas Island to seek asylum in Australia.
He drove to the outskirts of the city, went over a shaky bridge and arrived at Cisarua, a bustling village, but also the place considered a staging post for boats to Christmas Island.
The driver pointed to a man and said, ‘Over there, that’s a refugee.’
The meeting with ‘the refugee’ changed both their lives. Hasan introduced him to a cousin, Rizwana who said he must meet her brother, Muzafar, who was a photographer.
Jolyon asked all the ‘stupid but obvious’ questions:
Why did you leave your own country?
Was it really that bad?
How did you get here?
How do you manage to live?
Why do you want to live in Australia?
What is your plan, if you have one?…
Muzafar was an amazing photographer with beautiful photographs of Central Afghanistan who had teamed up with seventeen years old, Khadim who had made short films on his mobile phone and after posting them on the Internet had won awards.
Jolyon considered himself a good filmmaker, he’d studied in Australia but was stunned when he saw Muzafar’s photos and Khadim’s films – films oozing authenticity, raw footage from when both men decided to raise their voices and present their lives, culture, countries to the world and to keep a record of their incredible journeys.
Muzafar and Khadim are Afghan Hazara refugees who were stuck in Indonesia when Australia “stopped the boats”. They faced many years in limbo – at one stage the UNHCR said 5 years, some people had been there 10 years, and the forecast now is 15 – 25 years!!
Not only did they collaborate and complete this film with Jolyon but the majority of the film is about the creation of the Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre an amazing community school that began with a $200 donation, two rooms, one trained teacher and two teenage assistants.
It now has 18 teachers and managers teaching nearly 200 students a day – 110 students in morning classes and 57 older women and mothers ( many illiterate in their own language) in the afternoon. They are trialling Skype classes by a teacher in Australia.
When we started we had no idea. What should we teach? How should they teach? Little by little we found our way.
The film does not skirt over the fact that the major issues in the refugees’ lives remain. They are not allowed to work in Indonesia and rely on friends, family, supporters to donate – they receive support from locals as well as concerned people in Australia.
Indonesia allows refugees to stay but gives no help or pathway to citizenship
Refugees are not allowed to work and not allowed to attend school (since the success of Cisarua, this rule has been ignored!)
There are family members still in their home countries but also others who have been resettled in Europe, USA, Canada and Australia. Unfortunately, some have family members here but because they arrived ‘by boat’ the new, tougher laws in Australia will not allow family members to be reunited!
“Courageous People Never Give Up”
The real value lies in the process behind the outcomes – refugees building trust in one another, confidence, participation in problem solving and decision-making, and a general sense of starting each day with a purpose. After more than two decades working with refugees, this is certainly the most effective pre-departure preparation program I have encountered.
Lucy Fiske, Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research fellow, UTS, Sydney.
I hope many people see this inspirational film – an example of people who have been brutalised and forced to flee their own country in fear yet proved their resilience, courage and resourcefulness, by creating an amazing community that flourishes on hope.
The film is a must see – riveting and balanced – you laugh and you cry. This is about stateless people creating an energy, a force for the future. No longer perpetual victims or voiceless – they are telling their stories.
Adults with a variety of skills – plumbers, electricians, carpenters, artists, designers – renovating and fitting out a decrepit building into a functioning learning centre…
Two little girls learning to recite the alphabet, others reciting times tables whispering the answers to each other when one stumbles…
Afghani children dancing and singing, preparing for a concert to meet local and overseas children at an International School for the first time – the wonderment and uninhibited joy as the children mix with each other and share their knowledge… asylum seekers and refugees have something to give, a connection is made and a relationship grows in strength…
Khadim finally accepted to be resettled in the USA and as he packs his few belongings, he talks of his love for his mother and sisters, his fears for them, his determination to change a system that has women exchanged as young as 13 to marry men they do not love. He holds a traditional hat his mother made him, snuggles his face close, ‘It is so precious, it carries her smell…’ tears glisten –
I join him… and cry again when Muzafar and family arrive safely in Australia.
After the film, there was a Q and A session and we discovered that one little girl in the film who had dreams of becoming a doctor is now at college in Texas, top of her class and writing a novel! She will achieve her dream one day!
Khadim arrived in Los Angeles, was given a $500 cheque although he didn’t have a bank account and was turfed out of the ‘resettlement’ hotel after one night and told he was on his own and to get a job.
Using the networks he established online, he is now travelling across America and Canada visiting former refugees. Part of a bigger story than Cisarua. The friendship and project that started all those years ago when Jolyon sought answers. Understanding continues to grow and spread.
How to Help And Stand With Refugees
To support the filming and an outreach programme you can make a tax-deductible donation at the Documentary Australia Foundation – documentaryaustralia.com.au
Muzafar fared better because Jolyon and his wife met him and his family at Adelaide airport when they were finally accepted here for resettlement. He is at Adelaide University and also travels promoting the film and the Cisarua Learning Centre, which is now a Public Benevolent Institution with DGR (deductible gift recipient) status.
Their idea is that refugees can be part of the solution. They “uncover the sleeping leaders within the refugee communities and encourage them to start their own refugee-led initiatives, and then accompany them for as long as they need.”
Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre has inspired at least 20 other refugee-led education centres and changed the lives of thousands of refugee families.
There are now over 1,500 refugees receiving education in Indonesia from approximately 100 refugee teachers.
To donate and to find out more to help and stand WITH refugees
write to Cisarua Learning, Supporting Refugee Education, Unit 4, 484-486 Bronte Road, Bronte NSW 2024.
Buy the DVD,
read the stories,
stay engaged and be in there for the long haul.
Everywhere asylum seekers are being demonised. We are told stopping the boats was to prevent deaths at sea, yet where is the outrage at the prison-like conditions and deaths on Nauru and Manus – another suicide as recently as two weeks ago!
Many wealthy countries are closing their borders – the USA has halved their refugee intake, Canada has reduced their numbers too and Australia has radically reduced their intake but Minister Dutton and his BorderForce remain tight-lipped and make it increasingly difficult to discover numbers. Most media are denied access to Manus and Nauru.
We need films like The Staging Post to show us a world most of us will never experience and reveal the stories of courage, resilience, love and hope of refugee communities and maybe – just maybe Australians will rediscover the ability to warmly welcome ‘those who come across the seas‘!
The ground-breaking documentary, The Staging Post, is vital in shifting the understanding and debate in Australia to better understand the impact of our current policies.
Tim O’Connor, Director, refugee Council of Australia.
The staging Post is an incredible film and needs to be seen by as many people as possible. it shows how the refugees in Indonesia would make extraordinary citizens, in any country.