Armchair Travel Can be Fun If You Share Your Stories

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Day Thirteen – Writing About Where you’ve Been – What Have You Seen?

In a world where COVID19 has locked down, cities, countries, and communities and people are practising social isolation, now is the time to reflect and relive your travels.

Time to sort out memories, photographs and mementoes and write about them from the safety of your home.

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my little bear at the mailbox

You may have had time before but needed the inclination or incentive…  hopefully, you’ll gather some ideas as you read this post.

Reality says it may be many months before we will be able to do anything but armchair travel if the destination we seek is in another country or even another state.

Today, think about writing your recollections as a contribution to collective knowledge and adding to history/herstory – especially if you have photographs.

The spread and damage of COVID19, has produced new border controls, changes to travel, work and leisure… the world is not going to be the same after this global catastrophe.

Your memories and stories have always been important to you, they may now be important to others.

I’ve been privileged to travel widely since a child. Since blogging, I’ve shared some recent travels – to Samoa, to Mongolia, to Russia, to England and to Scotland – and many places in Victoria as a volunteer for Open House Melbourne, Ballarat and Bendigo.

I’ve been inspired to write poetry as well as short stories or personal essays to explain  memorable experiences:

Visiting Singapore 1973 – a haibun
Mairi Neil

We crowd on deck as the cruise ship glides into Singapore harbour, a week after leaving Fremantle. The silver sun aglow in a cloudless azure sky. Skin fiery scarlet from too many hours in the ship’s pool as Singapore City wobbles and wilts in the heat.

I ache for relief
from this tantalising veil
and covet the sea

Engines thrum and screeches of gulls mask the first hint a change is on the way. Rain falls in sheets and shafts. Solid blocks of water pound the decks.

Clouds scud across sky
the veil now a fog blanket
hiding the city.

Beneath our feet racing rivers fill deck gutters and our shoes. On automatic pilot, we slosh for cover, although there is no icy wind in this downpour.

No unsettling chill
just instant relief
from relentless heat

Rain hammers metal, swamps furniture and people, drenching everything not covered. Metal rails hiss. Steam sizzles on the shrinking, not sinking ship. No crevice escapes. A continuous stream of trickles and dribbles demonstrates the power of this deluge.

A turmoil of grey
idyllic tropics in grip
of monsoonal rain

Yet, within minutes, the ship docks and the downpour stops as quickly as it began. Singapore city a perfect watercolour painting showcases sunlight and serenity. The tropical shower and haze but a dream as perspiration leaks from every pore.

Share Your Travel Memories

Once you have organised a story – or many – enjoy the pleasure of armchair travel and swap with those in isolation with you.  Or share online via Skype, Face Time or Zoom. The digital tools available ensure your photos or slides will be more entertaining than the slide shows of old.

I remember more than a few family and friends falling asleep when I showed my China slides in 1979!

However, when I taught at Sandybeach Centre 20 years ago, they ran a regular program for people with limited mobility called Armchair Travel, and I volunteered one afternoon to share my China travels. I had learnt to choose the most interesting slides for that audience. I targeted correctly and they retained interest and were appreciative. Make sure your pitch matches your readers, listeners or viewers:)

Anyone who travelled in the 50s – 70s will remember those family slide nights before Super 8 movies superseded the modern version of ‘magic lantern’ shows in village halls.

People have always been fascinated by travel tales, especially of the exotic and unusual. The popularity of Sir David Attenborough or the Leyland brothers is testimony to that!

The shelves of the  Travel Section in bookstores are always overflowing and Lonely Planet publications have been successfully guiding adventurous travellers for years. 

Updates when friends travel flood social media with Facebook and Instagram designed for travel photos more than any other.

But these pics are soon forgotten unless you put them into context with words. Write a few sentences about each pic or retell your experiences over a beer or cuppa.

What Travel Experience Can You Write About?

Think and share what made your travel experience different from those of thousands of others. Even if you haven’t travelled overseas or interstate you have a travel story because you can write about your neighbourhood and everyday journeys.

In 2012, Mordialloc Writers’ Group published our 8th collection of poems and stories, Off The Rails, around the theme of the Frankston Railway Line – a journey thousands of people do daily and a topic the 21 featured writers embraced with relish and creativity.

You might have journeyed on the Orient Express, the Trans Siberian, the Flying Scotsman or Puffing Billy – write about:

  • why you made the journey
  • who was with you
  • the people you met
  • the best memory
  • the worst memory
  • if you would do it again

Remember too, those walks around the neighbourhood you are allowed during COVID19 can turn up ideas for stories – fictionalised if you want. Set a story in one of the houses that intrigues you or garden you admire…

Ask questions that you don’t know the answers to:

  • Who, what, why, when, where… and make up the answers!

I took these pictures this morning when walking the dog.

Who did the drawing? What was their motivation?  How long will the drawings stay there?

Write up the reactions of people – good and bad – was seeing them transformational for someone? Did it trigger memories?

The drawing of Frida Kahlo stunning for a child or teenager to draw – could be the start of an intriguing mystery or a memory of a visit to Mexico?

There are houses with bears or pictures of bears in the window – I’ve put my bear outside yet there are no children living here now.

Your characters in the story don’t have to be obvious or stereotypical.

A house advertised a birthday boy – 8 years old today. His party probably cancelled yet his parents found a way to make him feel special and stay connected to the outside world.

Write a story where you or your character has to find a creative solution to a problem.

How do you make someone feel special in this catastrophic time if you normally treat them to an outing?

 What’s your funniest travel story?

Humour is a great way to make a story memorable and different from everyone else’s experience. The stuff-ups or unexpected laughs are usually the tales we recount first (and often) when we return from our trip.

Humorous framing or retelling can also ease the embarrassment or shame when you make a cultural faux pas or do something stupid like miss a flight, board the wrong train, get lost in a foreign city or say something strange in a foreign language you just learned.

Here is my tale of travelling with a young child in the 90s:

What is the strangest thing that has happened to you travelling?

What is the nicest (or most horrible) food you have eaten when travelling?

(A class exercise Monday 15th October 2012 )

Have You a Taste For Travel?
Mairi Neil 

When I went to Alice Springs in 2011, to walk the Larapinta Trail, I braced myself for the time when I would be offered a witchetty grub. I remembered a student, Amelia reading a story of her encounter with the delicacy when she worked as an infant welfare nurse in the Northern Territory in the 1950s. I didn’t want to shame myself by refusing and offending indigenous hosts if they offered me a meal.

Five giggling Aboriginal girls had arrived at Amelia’s house with outstretched hands, displaying half-a-dozen thick white grubs whose sluggish twists indicated they were still alive.

The girls’ gift a gesture to show Amelia she had been accepted by the community. Amelia assured me that once cooked, the grubs tasted meaty. She shared a picture of herself, sitting on the ground in a circle around a campfire, head tilted back and mouth open, ready to accept the long white grub poised above her. Her eyes sparkled as a friend snapped the photograph for posterity.

Could I be as gracious and adventurous as Amelia?

The thought of putting what looked like a fat white caterpillar into my mouth, never mind swallowing it, made me nauseous. I’ve always had what my mother referred to as a ‘weak’ stomach – perhaps if I closed my eyes I’d be able to eat enough not to offend. If I concentrated I’d be able to keep it down rather than gagging or vomiting – my usual reaction to nasty tastes.

The more I thought of eating witchetty grubs the more obsessed I became of what they would taste like. They looked shiny and soft. What meat could they be like with that texture? Perhaps they firmed when cooked. A vision of people crunching on cooked insects surfaced as I remembered the fascinating produce of street vendors when I visited China in 1979.

I remembered too, the constant dissection and examination of every meal on that tour by one of the other travellers in our group. She made me long for a Vegemite sandwich as she poked and dismembered every meal with chopsticks looking for evidence we were being served rat, cat or dog. Cultural assumptions and prejudices rife when it comes to food and her behaviour shameful.

Why I couldn’t I embrace a meal of witchetty grubs, when research provides evidence of their nutritional value? Was I riddled with prejudice too?

Near the end of the five-day trek in Central Australia, I had to face the witchetty grub dilemma. Throat constricted and mouth dry, I could barely form the words to ask our Aboriginal guide, Nicholas to describe the taste of the large fat witchetty grub wriggling in the palm of his hand.

Sweat bubbled on his lip from exertion. A streak of dirt above one eye where he’d wiped his brow, gave a warrior glint to his expression as he showed the delicacy with pride. Nicholas and his auntie had spent almost an hour digging at the roots of an acacia bush to retrieve the prize. ‘It tastes like the yolk of an egg,’ he said, ‘and has a similar texture.’

He watched me closely and must have seen the mix of emotions cross my face, perhaps heard the gulp as I tried to swallow. Egg is not one of my favourite tastes.

‘One witchetty grub,’ he said, almost to himself.

I realised how much he craved the wriggling grub in his hand but innate generosity obliged him to give it to me.

‘It’s not really big enough to share,’ I said. ‘You and auntie did all the hard work. Maybe I’ll taste them another day.’

Our smiles of relief a mirror match as Nicholas hurried away before I changed my mind.

What Armchair Travels Will You Create?

Can you match a photograph with a short poem like haiku or terse verse? I write this after a trip to Italy but it could apply to many famous places crowded with tourists. The joke about ‘exiting through the gift shop’ is very much a reality in our consumer-driven world. What do you think those communities are like now?

Write about what a place was like when you were there and research what it is like now and write a comparison.

Verona Italy

Memories of Lago Di Garda, Italy
Mairi Neil, 2013

Lake Garda absorbs the rainbow on her shores,
sways to the call of African and Indian hawkers,
moans softly as the Peler, a northern breeze,
blows from pine-clad slopes, and is
ready for the challenging midday switch
when Ora, a cooler wind, whistles from the south.
Reminiscent of a Norwegian Fjord
She is the lake who thinks she is the sea

Each afternoon she lifts the rocky hem
of her blue dress and sashays to pick at
sun-bleached pebbles or reedy soil.
Fat ducks and swans float and gossip. Gulls dive,
searching the lake’s belly for lunch or supper
Rumbling planes overhead ripple her dress
and she runs icy fingers through sandy frills
sparkling with a thousand scattered gems.

She ignores the constant drone of tourist motorbikes,
bicycles, cars and coaches speeding through galleries
built by Mussolini and prefers the memories of
Hannibal, Hardy, Goethe, Rilke and Wharton.
Torbole fishermen, tend boats and mend nets
as they have done since the fifteenth century,
amused and puzzled by modern foolishness,
their dark eyes follow colourful flapping sails.

Lake Garda’s duty is to be Madame Bountiful,
nurturing sardines, eels, carpione and trout.
Tourists and locals, promenade to and fro Riva
or ride the ferries that trust her arms.
Summer and winter sun attracts holidaymakers,
but Lake Garda indulges lovers of sports trophies,
scantily clad onlookers, and awestruck children
who worship at the shrine of physical prowess.

Lake Garda – the lake who thinks she is the sea.

More Writing Prompts

  • Write a prose poem about a place or a short story recreating the setting.
    What memories are evoked?
  • Choose a place that makes you happy or sad; or two different places where you have had contrasting experiences. (Perhaps a childhood compared with adult experience, going somewhere alone compared with a trip with family or friends, seasonal visits – winter compared to summer, idyllic memories compared to the place after a natural disaster.)
  • Contrast the two places or the mixed feelings about the same place.

Write a HAIBUN ( a combination of prose and haiku) – about your journey/journeys.

HAIBUN (hie’-bun, the “u” pronounced as in “put”) A Japanese form in which a prose text is interspersed with verse, specifically haiku. A haiku typically appears at the end of a haibun, but other haiku may appear earlier, even at the beginning. Haibun often takes the form of a diary or travel journal.

Write a poem or story using the technique of an extended metaphor:

  • Life is a journey
  • Life is a mere dream
  • Life or love  is a camera full of memories
  • Home was a prison

Have you ever had the holiday from hell?

Have You A Favourite Holiday destination?

Currumbin a Sanctuary of Serenity
Mairi Neil, 2001

Looking from the balcony of our Currumbin holiday flat, the Pacific Ocean roared and vomited white foam onto the golden sand. This was not a beach for non-swimmers or the faint-hearted. Waves crashed against jagged rocks in the distance, massaging them smooth by the next millennium but the continuous licks and slaps hadn’t altered their shape in any noticeable way since my last visit.

I stared at the black shapes rising and disappearing in the waves. Dolphins or sharks? Then laughed as the black shape rose on a wave, stretched and balanced and fell. The group of dedicated surfers braving morning chill certainly needed wet suits, and their crouching and clinging in the force of the gigantic waves an amazing workout.

A group of rosellas arrive on the balcony. They line up on the railings waiting for the plate with seed, confident I will provide their breakfast. Chittering and hopping from ledge to chair back to patio tiles, they nag me to perform my act of goodwill.

Music drifts from above. A radio disc jockey drones, children’s sing-song chatter wafts from the swimming pool below, a van backfires in the distance and the pump that tirelessly cleans the swimming pool chugs into life at regular intervals. There are ten floors of holiday flats but if inside and the balcony door is closed, each flat is soundproof.

Peak hour traffic builds, Currumbin is coming alive and I know if I don’t go for a morning walk I’ll be dodging retirees and their pet dogs, fitness fanatics in lycra shorts and Reeboks, and crew for magazine and film photoshoots because this apron of sand is immensely popular. Thank goodness the flotilla of boats on the horizon don’t try to sail closer to shore.

The rosellas are a mass of squawking as I place the seed plate on the balcony table. A hot rising sun dispels the remaining coolness and shadows of the night. The ocean sparkles turquoise. I shake yesterday’s sand from my sandals, grab a hat and make for the lift. The half-hour walks along the beach towards the surfers just what the doctor ordered.

Even More Writing Prompts

Write a poem or story where you are describing the joys of summer to an extraterrestrial life form.

  • Write a story that begins, “She tripped and fell into the burning sand…”
  • Write a story that ends, “Roll on winter.”
  • Write a poem or story where everything that provides relief during the summer randomly breaks down. The air conditioning suddenly stops working. The power goes out in your home. You can’t seem to start your car.
  • Write a story that begins “This was no ordinary day…”
  • Write a story that ends – “She found her paradise after all.”

Enjoy A Cultural Experience Without Leaving Home

A friend I met when I was working on celebrating the 125th Anniversary of Mordialloc Primary School, told me her husband was scared of flying. They were teachers and all they wanted to do when they retired was travel overseas but she refused to travel by ship.

No flying, no sailing – what could they do to satisfy their desire to visit other countries?

They compromised and innovated. They borrowed books and documentaries from the local library and researched the customs, costumes, music and food of a country. After a few weeks, they visited the place via armchair travel.

They dressed appropriately for the season, cooked a custom meal, played the music you’d expect to hear and totally immersed themselves as if they were in the chosen country. They even spoke learned phrases from a new language to each other.

Armchair travel on steroids! Happy travelling –

Happy Writing!

Do You Know Who’s Telling The Story?

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Day Eight – Storytelling Is Great

What story will you tell? How are you going to tell it?

  • What style? Short sharp sentences? Long flowery paragraphs?
  • Who will tell the story?

These are two important questions to answer and the impact on each other of your choice matters.

Point of View (POV) is very important because it is linked closely to ‘voice’ which determines style, and is usually individual and recognisable. (This is why we often get attached to particular writers, not just because of the subject matter of their novels but how they write.)

Point of View

Is the perspective from which a story is told and generally these are the most common ones used in creative writing:

  • Third Person Omniscient – the narrator knows all the thoughts, motives and feelings of each character
  • Third Person Limited – the narrator stands outside the action and focuses on one character’s thoughts, feelings and observations.
  • First Person – the main character tells his/her own story and refers to himself as I, or another character tells the story from their point of view – a voyeur watching/interpreting the protagonist’s life
  • Second Person – the story is told by a narrator talking to the reader, using the key words You or your. (This is a difficult one to sustain in a long piece of writing and can become irritating for the reader too.
  • Third Person – the story is told by the narrator using the key words He/She/They
  • Objective – the Narrator does not tell the thoughts or feelings of anyone, so only action and words are reported

Some writers favour one particular point of view, others change their style depending on the story and genre.  Some writers will experiment, perhaps flitting between more than one narrator.

If you choose the first-person often it is a personal narrative. (Memoir/Life Story/Autobiographical) but it can also be used in a short story fictional story.

  • Will you make it moody with lots of description? Chatty and informal? Dark and/or Gothic?
  • One hazard of writing in the first person is that your readers tend to think that I-the-narrator is actually I-the-author – so be clear if you are writing fiction.

Whatever your point of view, when choosing the tone, pick whatever POV you feel you can sustain and remain easy and consistent.

  • Don’t take on a  tone that is unnatural for you.
  • Watch you don’t change tone or direction – perhaps taking too long to write the story, and in the long gaps between sessions, your mood and motivation have changed.
  • also, be wary of editing to perfection, or for brevity and destroying the flow of your story:)

A consistent tone is preferred for each short story and usually, it works better if told in one voice.

POV is a writer’s closest connection to the readers.

  • It creates meaning beyond that offered by the simple combination of character and plot; it adds subtext and secrets and suspense.
  • It is a writing element every bit as important as pacing or setting and, for that matter, is an essential part of developing plot and character.
  • It filters the experience of the plot events through the personalities and perceptions of the characters. Who is narrating the event (that is, the POV character) determines in great part how the reader experiences it.

Therefore, it is considered best practice to stick with just one point of view telling your story. (But there are always exceptions… once you are a confident writer.)

In a short story, that means the hero or heroine, the main character, the protagonist – whatever you want to call them is telling the story.

  • Too many points of view and the reader may be confused. Let them see the world of the story through the eyes and feelings of one character.

If you are writing in First Person, be careful not to read the thoughts of others in your story! 

The modern way is to tell the story from a single point of view. Head-hopping is discouraged.

Always remember, if writing from ‘I’, the first person, you cannot witness events you are not directly involved in, just like you cannot know what another character is thinking. If you want to be all-knowing then choose third-person omniscient!

Experiment and see what is right for your story and what POV you will use.

As always, once you know what you are doing you can experiment and break the accepted rules but expert writers usually advise not to experiment with POV – think about the confusion you can visit upon the reader!

However, an example of originality is a novel I loved, but I know many didn’t: The Time Traveller’s Wife, (2003) the first novel by  Audrey Niffenegger. (Please note, I loved the book, not the movie!)

Written in the first person, the novel is divided between the viewpoint of the two main characters Henry and Clare. The reader has an insight into the detailed emotions, feelings, thoughts and experiences of each main character.

Here is an example of a short story I wrote in 2004, influenced I admit by reading The Time Traveller’s Wife, (I got the courage to move away from the straight first person and my usual third person).  I tell a story from the viewpoint of three characters.

Impasse a short story, by Mairi Neil

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My story was published in Directions, an anthology by Bayside NightWriters  and written in one of my classes from a prompt:

  • Tell a story from different viewpoints of at least two characters, include a mobile phone, a truck driver and a traffic accident.

Writing Exercises For You:

  1. Take the prompt I had and write a story with two or three characters involved in an accident (could be traffic/air/boat)
  2. Kay frowned as she opened her locker. A few feet away Alexis and Christine grinned. I stood unsure of what to do.
  3. He grabbed the waitress by the arm and said, ‘ I’m senior detective Frank Jones and…
  4. Twinkling eyes can mean many things but the one twinkling at me right now is…
  5. I woke up to a strange noise and looked around the room. Where was I and how did I get here?

Ask questions to get a start on a story:

  • Who are all these people,
  • where are they,
  • what was in, or had been removed from the locker.
  • Why is the police officer grabbing the waitresses arm?
  • Are the twinkling eyes human? Is this set indoors or outdoors?
  • Are you the cold observer, or are you involved in some way? How?

Write from the first-person or third-person point of view and perhaps experiment with the others – whatever you feel the most comfortable with to make the ideas and words flow.

Stories Are Influenced By Current Events & Inventions

I can imagine we are going to be hearing about COVID19 for a long, long time! Writers are important to historians – we chronicle the time we live in, we exercise our reflective powers, our insight, our perspective, we discern the mood and we add our imagination and flair.

In 2004, mobile phones were just starting to proliferate although some business people had been using them for years. They were expensive, many thought them intrusive and unnecessary, and rumours they caused cancer abounded.

They were the latest invention/technology to be included in a lot of writing prompts with many pieces produced – usually not seeing them as a plus for society!

How things change!

Today, in this crisis of social isolation, we are grateful for having mobile phones – especially Smartphones!

Last night and tonight,  it was wonderful to hear laughter resonating throughout the house as my daughters caught up with friends using Facebook Messenger and Skype!

Each day of the Coronavirus Crisis I have been able to ring or message friends, family and ex-students to check they are okay.

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Not so long ago this was a common sentiment:

My parents did not even have a telephone or a TV set until the early 60s and thank God no mobile phones or computers, which take up an extraordinary amount of time these days.

When I wrote this poem in 1998 I was an observer and by the tone, you can see I held a different viewpoint from today because of my lived experience. In writing, context is everything.

Social Mobility a la 1998
Mairi Neil

They’re at the beach on a hot day,
in the queue at the Post Office,
interrupting a teller at the bank,
in the supermarket aisles and the checkouts,
sitting outside at a sidewalk cafe
at Southbank,
sitting inside in the Food Court
at Southland,
on trains, buses, trams,
on bicycles,
in cars, trucks, taxis,
walking the streets,
waiting at bus stops,
on train platforms,
at school gates,
in department stores,
in shopping malls,
in museums and art galleries,
at the zoo,
at meetings,
on picket lines,
at demonstrations,
outside courtrooms,
in lifts, on stairwells,
in public toilets,
in the school ground,
at school concerts,
at school assembly,
in church, at the theatre,
at the cinema, in hairdressers,
in classrooms at community houses,
and even at a funeral…
anywhere… anytime…
mobile phone
… anyone?

Today I might add Ubers and perhaps I would use a different tone, content, and context. perhaps I’d emphasise different experiences. That’s what is so wonderful about being a creative writer and continually being observant. Detail matters too.

Visual Prompts For POV

  1. What could these two lorikeets be talking about? Who took the picture? Why and from where? Is there danger lurking?

lorikeets feeding

  1. Who lives in this broken-down house? Why? What are the neighbours like? What conflicts could arise? What would happen if a developer bought it?

old house ormond street

It is a time of rapid change and anxiety – don’t be too hard on yourself – perhaps just aim for one great sentence or even a great idea for a story or poem you will get to ‘one day’.

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Happy Writing

 

Overcoming The Fear Of Perfect First Lines

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Day Six – First Lines Must Transfix!

I’ve paraphrased some very good advice:

When you are staring at a blank page or screen and can’t seem to get started write 10 or 20 ‘first sentences’. Don’t think or write beyond these story openers.

Be as playful or as nonsensical or abstract as you wish. It can be a lot of fun and liberating when you only have to think of the opening line and not the whole story!

Put these lines aside, have a coffee or a short walk or do some gardening … just take a break.

Later, look at the sentences.

Seen in isolation, the simplest of sentences can set off a cascade of questions you can spend an entire story or chapter answering. Eg. ‘He thought of cutting off the other leg.”

  • What leg? Whose leg? Why?
  • Is it a piece of furniture, an animal, a person??
  • How is he going to do it?
  • What happened to the first leg and did he or someone else cut it off?
  • Why is he still thinking about it and not doing it – what is stopping him?
  • Who is this person? Where is he?
  • What historical period is this?

Judy Budhitz: You Must Be This Tall to Ride: Contemporary Writers Take You Inside the Story© 2009

Read and Read Some More

Have a look at the following opening sentences from The Penguin Century of Australian Stories edited by Carmel Bird – what questions do they raise and where could the story go?

You can’t plagiarise – so don’t start your story with the exact words but the lines may trigger a similar idea.

‘We sat in our navy-blue serge tunics with white blouses.

A Snake Down Under, Glenda Adams

If you don’t wait under the house,’ said Rhoda to me, ‘she won’t come at all.’

Under The House, Jessica Anderson.

Down by the bar at the end of the pool, Ella Fitzgerald was telling them to take love easy easy easy and the women with skin like bark kept taking the conversation easy with two gate-crashers from a lugger.

Petals from Blown Roses, Thea Astley

I select from these letters, pressing my fingers down.

‘ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ’, Murray Bail

Louise was born on a Monday; she was married on a Monday, and her cat was eaten by an owl on a Monday.

The Powerful Owl, Candida Baker

I think you will agree, these are all intriguing opening sentence prompting questions.

IMAGERY IS IMPORTANT TO ENGAGE READERS

A successful image jolts the reader’s nervous system when explanation falls flat. Consider, “Donna felt weak,” versus, “Donna was unable to bring the spoon to her mouth.”

Which one makes you want to know what happens next? The rewrite is an example of showing and the first of telling.

writing class bentleigh

Get used to writing the first thing that comes into your head – don’t censor or edit – you’ll be surprised what it may lead to. Many great writers say they do not write per se – but are merely vessels through which writing flows.

The subconscious produces the writing, you just have to keep up. Train yourself to write specific pieces over particular timeframes. Eg. One short story or poem a week.

Set tangible goals but be flexible – life is for living not worrying about self-imposed challenges.

Now it is your turn…

Try to write fast and not plan (no mind mapping today) – just let your mind focus on creating an image the words trigger.

Once you get a story down – then you can shape it for your audience – but you have to write it first!!

An original idea is not necessarily one that hasn’t occurred to others (a concept, plot, twist in story), it can be your approach to the story idea that’s original.

Stephen King wrote about teenage vampires years ago but Stephanie Meyer’s depiction made her Twilight series best sellers.

Your originality will be the slant you choose, your style of writing and your interpretation of a good but perhaps well-worn idea.

GRAB A PEN AND WRITE

Rewrite each of the following statements in a way that shows instead of explains (tells).

By concentrating on creating an effective image your writing will get a boost. (Remember all of this advice and triggers can be used for poetry if that’s your preferred genre.)

  • Her hair was a mess.
  • The garden was ready for picking.
  • I hate broccoli.
  • You always change your mind.
  • The moon is full.
  • Fred’s car was a mess.
  • The food did not look good.
  • The terrier was mean.
  • The old woman’s shoes did not fit.
  • The party was fun.

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Have you created a great first line? Can you continue with one of the stories?

(If none of the above inspired, check Google images on a theme you want to write about and make the image come to life by telling the story of the picture.)

Practice makes perfect good advice when it comes to creative writing. The more you read writers good at their craft, the more you learn and absorb their expertise. The more you write, the easier it becomes to remember a lot of those techniques and apply it to your own writing.

To craft a compelling story, you must first launch it in the right direction. Never forget that the entire course of a story or novel, like an avalanche, is largely defined within its first seconds.

opening into a garden

I love short stories and read a lot of them – and I love travelling (I’ve done a lot of that too!).

Here are twelve first lines to consider why they ‘hook’ you in – and by the way, this is important for all writers, even those into non-fiction! These first lines are from The best of Lonely Planet Travel Writing, 2009 edited by Tony Wheeler

  1. I got off the plane in Addis Ababa and there, as in so many airports so often in the past, was my school friend, Louis, extending a shaky hand. Pico Iyer “No Food, No Rest, No…”
  2. In Borneo, there were only two destinations: upriver and down. Stanley Stewart, “Upriver”
  3. For weeks after returning from my ill-fated journey to the Indian Himalayan village of Kaza, I had difficulty explaining to people why I’d wanted to go there in the first place. Rolf Potts, “Something Approaching Enlightenment
  4. We lost the side-view mirrors somewhere outside Nakhon Ratchasima. Bill Fink, “The End Of The Road”
  5. It was a blazing tropical morning in the middle of nowhere. Simon Winchester “Ascension In The Moonlight”
  6. This story – this true story – concerns reciprocal kindnesses in a country which has come to symbolise humanity’s trials. Nicholas Crane, “Finding Shelter
  7. Through moonlit fog, I walked from the bus station towards the colonial centro of San Christóbal Chiapas. Laura Resau, “Secrets of the Maya”
  8. When I was working in China, it seemed that everyone I needed to see was not where he was supposed to be. Karl Taro Greenfield, “On The Trail
  9. Blam! The mad Tibetan slammed his head against the windscreen with such force that cracks shot across the screen from the point of impact. Tony Wheeler, “Walking the Mount Kailash Circuit”
  10. In 1974, when I was 23, it was not uncommon for a young person to gather together a few dollars, strap on a backpack and spend part of the summer hitchhiking through Europe, searching for unknown foreign adventures or merely trying to postpone the inevitable adult responsibility called ‘work’. Greg Tuleja, “A Slight Leaning Backward”
  11. Devoted as I am to the ethos of Lonely Planet, I was never a backpacker. Jan Morris, “Ignoring The Admiral
  12. The flat perched at the top of the house, little more than a lean-to riveted to Mrs Puri’s ceiling. William Dalrymple, “City of Djinns”

I wrote this story from a prompt in a writing game – you had to go fast and furious and the prompts were bizarre.

Fijian Fantasy, a short story by Mairi Neil

The first line had to be ‘my brother did this weird thing with turtles’,  I had to mention Duluth (yes, this is a place)and the phrase, ‘a smell of leftovers’!

I told you in an earlier post writing games are fun!

Titles as Inspiration

A decade ago, I read about Martha Grimes who writes a series of mystery novels in which the titles are taken from the names of British pubs.

What stories could you write (they don’t have to be mysteries) featuring typical fast food and other restaurants around Melbourne’s suburbs?

 Here are a few ideas to get you started – apologies but you should know by now I love alliteration:

  • Star Struck at Starbucks
  • Mayhem at McDonald’s
  • Wendy’s Wishes
  • Danger at Domino’s
  • Blah Blah’s Battleground
  • Gloria Jean’s Gluttony
  • Pancake Parlour Pirate
  • Taco Bill’s Tyranny
  • Curry House Caper

If you are into historical fiction or any genre imaginable here are a few names of British Pubs I pulled from The Wordsworth Dictionary of Pub Names – an intoxicating history of a famous British institution, Wordsworth edition, London 1994,

book cover - pub names

It is amazing what books you find on your shelves! I’ll list where the pubs are so you know I’m not making them up – but so what if I was – I am a creative writer:)

A Bit on the Side (Chippenham, Wiltshire)
Abbot’s Fireside (Eltham, Kent)
Air balloon (Abingdon and elsewhere)
Angel by the Bridge (Henley-on-Thames)
Atmospheric Railway (Starcross, near Exeter)
Babes in the Wood (Hanging Heaton, West Yorks)
Bag ‘o Nails (Annesley, Nottinghamshire)
Bald-face Stag (Burnt Oak, Edgware)
Bareknuckle Boys (Holmfirth, Huddersfield)
Bleak House (Horsell Common, Sry and elsewhere)
Cuckoo Bush (Gotham Nottinghamshire)
Crystal Palace (Merthyr Tydfil and elsewhere)
Crown and Cushion (Eton and elsewhere)
Cross Rifles ( Bridgwater Somerset)
Court Jester (Hampton Gloucester)

And the alphabetical lists go on for 300 pages with a potted history of each name – although many state the obvious!

Maiden’s Head (Maidenhead and elsewhere)
Magpie and Stump (London EC4)
King’s Head (London and elsewhere)
Queen’s Arms ( Watford and elsewhere)
Try Again (Bristol)

Now Go Do Fast Writing

Close your eyes, relax and breathe deeply.
Say to yourself: With every word I write I will become calmer, more confident and more creative.
Repeat 3 times with feeling.
Imagine yourself writing quickly and fluidly
Smile – this is writing for pleasure!
Let go of your logical mind.
Let your subconscious come up with the words and ideas – trust your memory to have stored interesting events, people, thoughts…

Good Luck and Happy Writing

Icebreakers For Writers -Lessons That Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s in a name?
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s my effort –

Family_Resemblance.jpgWhat Made Me?
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introductions – Exercise One in Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AT HOME:

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

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

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

A Scottish Summer
Mairi Neil

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

Proust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Introductions – Exercise Two in Class

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

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

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

My effort:

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

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

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

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Reflection and Discussion Enriches the Lesson

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

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

As always, encourage writing and rewriting at home…

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

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

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

OR

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

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

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

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

AJ cronin details.jpg

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

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

See how that exercise has triggered stories for me…

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memories triggered

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

My Facebook Post May 6th 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                        Jane Austen’s, Pride and Prejudice

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

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

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

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

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

view of town hall.jpg

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

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

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

Jane Austen Perennially Popular

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

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

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

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

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

jane writing.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the harington club gentlemans sign.jpg

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

Jane Austen observed – everything.

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

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

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

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

Letter to James Stanier Clarke, 1 April 1816

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

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

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

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

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Discovering A Different Jane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

teenage jane austen history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                            Anne Elliot, Persuasion

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

Henry the 4th

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

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

Henry the 6th

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

Edward the 4th

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

Edward the 5th

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

Richard the 3d

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

Henry 7th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

she concludes with –

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

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

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

darcy's shirt and waistcoat.jpg

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

When History Is Fashionable

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

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

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

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

 

Next week (I) shall begin my operations on my hat, on which you know my principal hopes of happiness depend.
Letter to Cassandra Austen, 27 October 1798

mature mrs darcy.jpg

Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim.
                                                       Northanger Abbey

In her research, Fiona found that the French open robe style usually didn’t come with a petticoat because few survived – they were frequently taken on and off and most probably wore out. Petticoats were often made of the same fabric as the gown in a complimentary or contrasting colour.

Women didn’t wear knickers in the eighteenth century (audible gasps and giggles around the room) but diaphanous see-through gowns led to pantaloons – although many of these were knitted and flesh coloured to give the appearance of no knickers. (more audible murmurings…)

those undergarments.jpg

What Influences Fashion?

Classical Greek and Roman lines are often the basis for design but also things like the Hussar Soldier Uniform and other unusual inspirations for accessories.

In the 18th century, the American revolution interrupted the supply of raw cotton and English industrialists looked to India and other colonies. The East India Company imported not just raw cotton but ready-to-wear material. Muslin, a popular dress material became available plain, coloured and even patterned.

Revolutions and wars are big influences.

For example, in WW2 and years immediately following, stripes and shoulder pads introduced and women’s suits were made from sturdy fabrics mimicking the style of military uniforms. It was a sad and serious time with material shortages plus more women in the workforce requiring suitable clothes.  Less frivolity and more practicality.

When it is happier less threatening times, clothes reflect the change of mood – frills, fripperies, colour, softer material, flowing designs …

Who can forget the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the shock of mini-skirts and Jean Shrimpton attending the Melbourne Cup hatless, in sandals without stockings, and a mini dress?

Often military inventions lead to a fashion use (nylon, rayon and drip dry fabric, lycra) or in the case of the 18th century because of the French Revolution wearing silk, which was considered luxurious, became a ‘no no’.

The Empire Line named after Napoleon’s determination to create his empire another example of fashion reflecting what is happening in society.

Muslin easier to look after than silk but still hand washed, rinsed, squeezed – towel dried and ironed. Bows and vandyke edging needed a special tiny iron to get into tucks with its point.

When dresses long, if they swept the ground women didn’t walk in parks and gravel and avoided dirty paths. They stepped from the doorway to carriage. For those stepping out more – hems went up a bit and wore gowns that could be washed or survive regular washing.

18th-century shoes had thin soles for dancing pumps. Boots were for country lanes and lace-up boots had a slightly thicker sole and heel. Fashionable shoes wore out quickly – poorer people needed stout leather because they walked more and their leather shoes thicker and more uncomfortable.

In the Regency era parasols tended to have straight handles and small canopies. Folding handles appeared mid 19th century as did the metal spoke. The parasol in the exhibition dated to the late 1840s, it has metal spokes but a straight handle and the canopy of polished cotton has ruching, a frill and wooden finial.

 

Fiona dressed Cassandra in crinoline – it was a time when there was an absence of war and the men were back and the male idea of femininity emphasised. Women were ‘financially dependent so had to kowtow.’ 

Fiona compared the dress on display to the 70s fashion of bell bottoms, describing both as ‘ridiculous’. I agree – the above illustrations from the Fashion Museum emphasise how limiting those voluminous dresses would be.

I wore bell bottoms in the 70s and they were a short-lived fashion item. The nearest I’ve been to a crinoline is a hooped dress a friend made me for my 60th birthday party when everyone had to come dressed as their favourite literary character.  I chose Jo from Little Women and the hooped petticoat and puffed-out gown not ideal for movement.

Just like in the 1820s/30s dresses were designed with restricted shoulder lines because women were not supposed to raise their arms – again we are talking about women in a particular class!

long woollen cloak:shawl.jpg

Anne Elliot, from Persuasion, was chosen to model a gown with a floor-length shawl.

Fiona asked us to note the sleeves and ruffles around the neck. The dress, fine cotton circa 1815 with flounces around the skirt. The lace a later addition. The bodice has ruching and the neckline an organdie tucker with ruffled collar. A Norwich shawl is over her shoulder.

The Norwich shawl, a long rectangle not square – perfect for wrapping or draping around Empire-line gowns. It could also be a Paisley or Edinburgh shawl, the name denotes where they were made. A Paisley square often folded into a triangle later in the 19th century when the voluminous ‘crinoline’ gowns returned to fashion.

The bustle killed the shawl as a fashionable accessory.

dress with bustle

The shawl on show magnificent, Fiona’s own version of an expensive imported Kashmir shawl fashionable in the 18th century, which encouraged weaving centres like Norwich and Paisley to produce their own versions. However, original Kashmir shawls popular with the very rich.

This shawl is ‘partially filled’ – an assistant (usually a woman) sitting beside the weaver hand sews extra, thicker strands to the back of the shawl to make it stronger and warmer. In 1845, fine wool began to be imported from Australia and the fashion industry incorporated this in dresses as well as shawls.

Lizzie Bennet’s Wedding Dress?

Any exhibition must have the young Lizzie Bennet and Fiona chose a wedding gown circa 1810 imagining it was Lizzie’s because she considered after all the build up in Pride and Prejudice,  Jane Austen could have at least given a description of Lizzie Bennet’s wedding dress.

The classic Empire line gown is of ivory silk and so fine it needs a padded hem to give it weight. The bonnet is a reproduction of the original. The pumps 18th-century shoes.

White became a popular option in 1840, after the marriage of Queen Victoria to Albert of Saxe-Coburg, when Victoria wore a white gown trimmed with Honiton lace. Illustrations of the wedding were widely published, and many brides opted for white in accordance with the Queen’s choice.

Regency era it was white or pastel colours because white was a fashionable colour not just for brides. In Brideswear Revisited – 200 years of gowns: off-white, cream, ivory and oyster more popular because ‘white flatters no one’.

The Provenance of the Gown an interesting story

It was worn by Emma Cato who married George Daniel at Chelsea Old Church in London 1810. Emma, born in Holborn 1787, was one of nine children to Thomas and Elizabeth Cato. Thomas described as a wireworker who made items such as needles, fish hooks, cages, chains, traps, decorative architectural embellishments and garden decorations.

He would have belonged to the Worshipful Company of Tin Plate and Wire Workers, a City of London Trade Guild. Fiona said he must have been a master rather than a mere worker because he left a Will.

George Daniel, variously described as book collector, literary critic and author, meant Emma came into contact with some of the literary giants of the day as he claimed membership of an exclusive circle including Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

He published critiques of their work as well as those from ‘superstars’ like Sir Walter Scott often inserting some of his own ‘dubious attempts at verse’ in the critique.

Fiona adds we can ‘only imagine what Emma’s life with a self-important wannabe poet and author must have been like. Perhaps he earned enough from his published literary criticism to keep them in comfortable circumstances.’

She surmises that if Jane Austen had been a man, George Daniel may have critiqued her work and Emma might have met her – considering Jane’s early novels were written anonymously perhaps he did come across them – how would we know?

I don’t think he could have been too horrible considering he composed a poem to his daughter for her birthday (c1815) and it was stitched together as a booklet – a reproduction on display and the original is at the University of Indiana.

And Yet Another Sidetrack… Huguenots

I always learn something new whenever I attend a talk, workshop, gallery, museum… and Fiona’s had me searching online about the Huguenots who were French Protestants active in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were forced to flee France due to religious and political persecution by the Catholic Church and the Crown.

I knew their story of persecution but not their contribution to the fashion industry and beyond.

Still a lightning-rod for collective anxieties, the word “refugee” entered the English language when the Huguenots landed. Although migration had begun beforehand on a modest scale, around 50,000 French Protestants came to England after Louis XIV revoked the 1598 Edict of Nantes at Fontainebleau in October 1685. Another 10,000 fled to Ireland, part of an exodus of perhaps 200,000 people. Other large contingents went to Holland, Sweden and Prussia. That still left the bulk of a hard-pressed but robust population of 750,000 or so to weather hardship in France and wait for more tolerant times…

According to one estimate, one in every six Britons has some Huguenot ancestry. Names of obvious French origin tell only a fraction of this tale. Yes, it’s easy enough to spot a Laurence Olivier, a Simon Le Bon, a Walter de la Mare, a Daphne du Maurier, a Samuel Courtauld, a Jon Pertwee, a Reginald Bosanquet, an Eddie Izzard, even – as the Ukip leader happily acknowledges – a Nigel Farage. Yet, just like Jewish incomers two centuries later, Huguenot migrants often changed their names or had them changed by impatient clerks.

As a Victorian history of London puts it, “the Lemaitres called themselves Masters; the Leroys, King; the Tonneliers, Coopers; the Lejeunes, Young; the LeBlancs, White; the Lenoirs, Black; the Loiseaux, Bird”.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/refugee-week-the-huguenots-count-among-the-most-successful-of-britains-immigrants-10330066.html

Proof refugees enrich society

The Huguenots arrived in Britain from France and brought their skill of silk weaving to Spitalfields where 300 families settled transforming it into London’s centre for silk-weaving. The most amazing silk designer of that period was a woman – Anna Maria Garthwaite.

The type of motifs, scale, rendering, and colour palette in textile patterns went in and out of fashion and can be used to identify a garment as being from the 1710s, 1740s, or 1760s.  The importance of silk-weaving and new designs to Georgian fashion cannot be underestimated as they conveyed not only taste but also status and wealth for the wearer.

Remarkably, one of the most successful and influential designers of silk patterns was an English woman, Anna Maria Garthwaite (1690-1763), who came to Spitalfields in 1730 and quickly infiltrated the male-dominated and family-based industry.  In fact, the establishment and prosperity of Spitalfields silk-weaving were due largely to waves of immigration by French Huguenots fleeing persecution in the 16th and 17th centuries, many of whom were weavers bringing advanced skills.

As a forty-year-old single woman, it is unlikely that Garthwaite received much if any of the formal training required of her male counterparts.  She worked in watercolour and at her most prolific produced approximately eighty designs a year, tapering off in the 1750s to about thirty designs per annum

http://blog.courtauld.ac.uk/documentingfashion/2016/11/03/anna-maria-garthwaite-spitalfields-silk-and-english-rococo/

Spitalfields was a major force in shaping eighteenth-century fashion because it was the centre of the silk-weaving industry in England.  Silk manufacture drove the very business of fashion as trends concentrated on new textile patterns rather than garment styles.

Weavers, joiners, smiths and merchants set up shop in Soho or Spitalfields and textile and design students at London Metropolitan University, now study some of their crafts, such as silk-weaving, silversmithing and upholstery. 

It is remarkable that a woman like Anna Maria Garthwaite achieved the level of success that she did.  It is a testament not only to her sheer talent and vision but also her courage to value her own abilities.

A woman Jane Austen would have admired and loved!

 

Christmas Joy Not Humbug!

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The Twelve Days of Christmas

The popular song aside, traditionally the ‘twelve days of Christmas’ is the period that  Christian theologians mark the time between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi, referred to as the three wise men.

It begins on December 25, Christmas Day and continues to January 6, the Epiphany.  For many people that is also the day they take down the Christmas Tree and put the decorations away for another year. Some people do this on January 5th others January 6th.

I can smile now remembering the first discussion my late husband, John and I had about this – I brought up Church of Scotland and non-conformist and he, brought up Church of England (Anglican rather than Episcopalian).

Although born in Australia, John spent the early part of his life in England and Christmas traditions ingrained. As a Scot whose household celebrated Hogmanay, Christmas was low key, centred around the Church:

Christmas Day only became a public holiday in 1958, and Boxing Day in 1974. The New Year’s Eve festivity, Hogmanay, was by far the largest celebration in Scotland.

Emigrating to Australia in 1962, the hot summers didn’t do anything to increase my enthusiasm for some traditions – especially ones involving Yule logs and roast dinners!

Back to the ‘Twelve days’ …

John said the tree had to be down and decorations packed away by January 6th, whereas I believed you left it up until January 6th. A ridiculous debate put in perspective the year my sister divorced her horrible first husband. She left her Christmas tree up until Easter because it brightened the house and welcomed her home with twinkling lights! As good a reason as any to break with tradition…

wild woman and christmas message

Cate’s unorthodox view remembered this year when she became an unexpected house guest for Christmas because her husband needed an urgent operation and the surgeon could fit him into his list at Frankston Hospital on Christmas Eve.

What would Christmas be without a wee miracle?

Brother-in-law Ian came through with flying colours and Christmas lunch a bigger and more special celebration than usual. The few days Cate and I spent, in and around, the large public hospital, sobering and a glimpse of the Christmas others experience.

It got me thinking that Christmas aside, there are always many people trying to ‘brighten’ the lives of others, dedicating their lives to those less fortunate – they don’t need an excuse, they do their job, follow their heart or beliefs, care about human or animal welfare – we don’t focus on the joy often enough, but absorb the negativity the press pander to – the philosophy of TV News – if it bleeds, it leads…

The nursing staff at Frankston did their best to make the ward festive – I loved the use of medical equipment tarted-up (a rubber ring/doughnut cushion stuck with coloured balls) and tinsel wrapped around trolleys and exercise equipment. But it was the effort of wonderful volunteers dressed as Mrs Christmas and elf helper on a 36-degree day that truly impressed!

We scored a candy cane before they entered the lift!

cate with hospital volunteers

Advent for many Christians begins the four weeks preceding Christmas and each Sunday up to Christmas Eve there will be special sermons and services leading up to the arrival/birth of Jesus.

However, for an increasingly secular society, Christmas begins with a flood of consumerism that reaches fever pitch and a frenzy in December but starts late October/early November…

I wrote a poem about this years ago (pre-computer), can’t find it, but suffice to say it wasn’t complimentary to junk mail or the advertising industry, which help with the humbug factor and not the joy that is found among friends and family, who use the lead up to Christmas for gatherings or tȇte-à-tȇtes.

my pink-red rose.jpgChristmas Catch-Ups

I love this time of year because in many of the cards or emails received there is news of how the year has been for friends and family and people make an effort to get together. Give me a chat and cuppa instead of presents any day because if the person lives far away, or is rarely seen, information other than ‘Merry Christmas’ is good to hear.

Sometimes even if people live close by, the busyness of life leaves meaningful conversation a rarity and so the gift of time to chat, go to the movies or a play is refreshing and food for the soul. Christmas is a great excuse and motivation to invigorate relationships. I get to have a coffee or tea with students outside class – I’m not the teacher or motivator but a friend with all ‘the issues’ that enjoy a good airing when we share what’s in our hearts and minds.

Here I am with Elhan who came to my class several years ago at Mordialloc. She is an accomplished writer in English as well as Turkish and writes a column for a Turkish newspaper in Melbourne. She took me to a cafe in Mordialloc owned by Turkish Australians, bought me ‘Turkish tea’ served in a cup with the blue-beaded eye motif to protect me from evil, and gifted me an Orhan  Pamuk novel.

It’s not a Facebook cliche when I write I’m truly blessed with the people who have come into my life through teaching and writing!

I’m transitioning to retirement but some of my friends are already enjoying more leisure time. I went to see a dear friend Uma and husband Kevin who live at Bulleen. It was lovely to have lunch in their home instead of catching up with Uma near her office in the city – our usual Christmas rendezvous.

It was an hour and a half’s journey by public transport – train to Southern Cross and then another to Heidelberg Station – but a relaxing journey that introduced areas of Melbourne I rarely visit. However, visiting will be a lot easier when the Andrews Government’s fantastic infrastructure program is complete. Looking at a time when they may not want to drive everywhere, Uma and Kevin are thrilled that accessing public transport will be so much easier and provide more choice of mode and destinations because they live near one of the many access points for the outer city loop.

After lunch, we walked to the park at the end of their street and Uma shared stories of her neighbourhood with similar pride when she and Kevin came to Mordi at Easter and we walked the foreshore and I shared where I fill up with serenity!

At the park considering the topic of my last post, I was thrilled to discover The Peace Path!

bulleen peace park

What a wonderful project! We watched families play in the park, school children walk home from nearby schools past The Peace Path, a prominent installation, a daily and fun reminder of diversity and connectedness. Well done Manningham City Council.

 

New Acquaintances Not Forgot

Many ex-students who perhaps only came for a semester or two also stay in touch and have become valued friends. At this time of year, it’s lovely to hear how they are going with their life and writing projects.

I received a welcome letter from Naoko in Japan and the delightful gift of a book and a very tempting invitation:

“an autobiography by Tomihiro  Hoshino. He writes poetries and draws paintings by his mouth. He is from my neighbour town and there is a museum. I would like to take you there. So please come visit me!'”

book cover from Japan

Serendipity!

Naoko doesn’t know that for more than twenty-five years I have bought cards and calendars from Mouth & Foot Painting Artists Australia and hold the artists in absolute awe for the exquisite products and attitude to life.

She does know that I love Japanese poetic forms and their ability to say so much in so few words – most of my classes have been introduced to haiku, tanka, renga, senryu and haibun at some point!

It is not a thick book and translated by Hiroko and Joseph McDermott was an easy read. But it is quite unlike other memoirs I’ve read considering the subject matter. The tone is not ‘poor me’ or bitter and very quickly the focus is how the writer accepted help from others and learned to paint and write with his mouth to bring meaning, purpose, joy and love into his life.

It is an upbeat memoir because yes he even grew to love and marry a faithful nurse ( not always a cliche) and found success as a writer and painter.  I understand not everyone with a disability or life-changing accident can be so lucky – but what you learn from the book is that it wasn’t just luck…

His determination and persistence, plus the loyalty, love, and consistent support from those who loved him are powerful elements not only enabling him to survive but thrive.

This First edition published in 1988 is the first of several books from Hoshino who was a high school physical education teacher until an accident in the gymnasium left him paralyzed from neck to toe and hospitalised for nine years.

He was 24 years old and in his prime.

‘I was a physical education teacher. I chose this job, not so much as I was interested in teaching, but as I wanted to keep on doing the sport I had always loved since childhood. This desire was so strong that all day long I would exercise with my students… even after the classes were out, I was running or kicking a ball around until everyone else had gone home and the grounds were empty except for me.’

The first chapter, The Accident (June 1970), is short and to the point with headings:

  • Do I Still Have Arms?
  • The Face of My Parents
  • I Will Not Die
  • From the Hospital Diary

He uses extracts from his sister’s Diary to explain the precariousness of his situation, the operations and treatment that ultimately saved his life and put his neck bones into place so he could breathe without a respirator.

“It has been decided that he can sleep without the machine. When the gauze was put back in the hole in his throat, he was encouraged to practice talking with the hole in his throat covered up. Ton-chan (my nickname) smiled happily and said in a strong voice, “The weather’s fine today.” He looked so happy that we all burst into laughter.”

haiku - owl.jpeg

The second chapter is The Joy of Writing and we learn, ‘Two years passed. Some people assumed I had died… I wavered between life and death so many times…’

However, the medical attention and constant support of his mother, brothers, sisters and close friends who take turns to nurse him every day, kept him alive. (His mother devotes her life to his recovery from day one!)

He mentions but doesn’t dwell on despondency and despair. ‘ My body had a life of its own, regardless of my wishes, though I no longer had a deep commitment to life.’

I don’t know anything about the Japanese hospital system but obviously, technology and scientific development since the 70s have changed in much the same way as ours. The treatment of accidents like Hoshino’s would be different and perhaps have different outcomes. Hospital treatments, access, cost and even where the hospital is in Japan is not the focus of the story.

There is a glimpse of how rehabilitation has made great advances when he describes the day a visiting child brought a radio-controlled toy car into the hospital and one of the mothers who was looking after her child who was a patient said:

‘If one child brings a toy like that, all the others want their own. You can’t blame them. If you’re rich, it might be okay. But what about families like ours?… Tears were welling up in her eyes.

It’s nothing to cry over…, I thought, and moved closer to the children… It was like a very clever puppy perfectly trained to perform…

Frankly, I felt like crying for one as well… watching the car race around … a certain sadness crept up over me. If people can make a precision toy like this for children, why should I have to stay on a wheelchair which moves only when someone pushes it? Why couldn’t the scientific knowledge used for such a toy also be used to move a wheelchair?

I also felt tears coming to my eyes…

Electric wheelchairs were available but he needed one specifically designed for people who can only move from the neck up. His wheelchair was actually a motorised stretcher.

In 1979, after two boffins from Suzuki Motors visited him they worked out the power and movement he had in his neck and delivered a wheelchair with a driving lever he controlled with his chin.

‘Everything about the world outside then began to look rosier once I found that people like them were working away at some research that could greatly ease my life…

Now my mother could take long-needed rests while I went out for rides.’

a vision of hope verse.jpg
From a card I bought in Oban, Scotland

In 2016, I was privileged to help start and facilitate a social group for Glen Eira Council. Over the years, I’ve had several people with ABI (Acquired Brain Injury) in my classes and I was approached to help them start a group where they could meet and discuss everything from literature, movies, politics, philosophy, therapies, culture, and even pet peeves… to relax and ‘Chat ‘N Chuckle’ with others who understood that it may take longer to speak, to listen, and understand what someone wants to say.

Many had motorised wheelchairs – today a variety of mobility aids are common but Tomihiro’s thoughts and perspective gave me a deeper understanding of how important aids are and how innate our need for independence.

An Epiphany

Tomihiro’s electric wheelchair was a long time coming and despite his mother’s relentless devotion it was often the interaction with others that gave that much-needed spark not to lose hope.

Sharing a room with a seriously ill ex-student from his junior high school who always had a cheerful smile made Tomihiro feel obligated to smile too along the lines of  ‘fake it till you make it’.

The relationship that developed between master and student a turning point, especially after the teenager was moved to another hospital and his mother visited Tomihiro, bringing a white, tulip shaped hat belonging to her son, Takaku. He wanted his former roommates to write words of encouragement such as ‘don’t give up’ and ‘have patience’.

Tomihiro wanted to write something but crunching a pen between his teeth, could only manage a tiny dot until his mother moved the hat so he managed to write one of the Chinese characters of his name “Tomi” extending the tiny dot into an “O”.

From that tentative beginning and with months of trial and error to find a painless position for his neck, he finally managed to write a single letter by himself:

“The gauze rolled around the pen in my mouth got soaked with saliva. It was also dyed with blood from the gums since I had strained so much while writing. My mother, who was watching from the side of the bed, also clenched her teeth from the strain. There was sweat on her forehead as well…

All of a sudden my life looked bright again… after having experienced the despair that I would never be able to do anything again, I felt from a single line or letter the same thrill I might have experienced setting a new sports record.”

flowers in vase.jpg

Another person who not only visited Tomihiro but was instrumental in his healing journey and his development as a writer and poet was a friend from university days.

Yoneya… and I would have dinner at the same table and every evening I would watch him say a prayer. I usually sat down with my hands unwashed and started eating … I never wondered to whom or what he was praying, nor why he said a prayer before every meal…

One day, he told me, “I am going to study in a theological school in Tokyo in order to become a minister.”

… I didn’t know exactly what it meant, but I realized what a hard and serious life he had chosen to pursue.

As soon as he heard of my injury he came to see me in the hospital. later he sent me a copy of the Bible with his apology for being unable to do anything else for me for the time being. I kept the book in a box under the bed…

Actually, I had hesitated for a long time before opening the Bible. I was afraid other people around me might think and say, “He must be in such pain to have turned for help even from the Christian God…”

… I tried to think up some excuse to open the Bible: it would help me understand history… pass the time… requite a favor extended by a senior…

… all along I knew very well what I really wanted. In my mind, I had a faint hope that something in this black-bound book might change me, just as it had changed Mr Yoneya and made him feel grateful for even the poor meals served in the university dormitory…

… when I was forced to lie on my bed unable to move or speak, I had to live a life in which every day I had to face the real me. And the real me was not strong, was not a fine person at all…

faith verse.jpg

The Power of  Spiritual Awakening

Tomihiro reads the New Testament and he recognises certain verses he has read on graves in cemeteries (St Matthew 11.28-30):

I had not known what they meant. But somehow the words stuck clearly in my mind. Perhaps I remembered them since I was then really “heavy laden,” carrying manure from the pigsty up to the fields. 

As I reread this passage over and over, I felt something warm begin to stream out from the depths of my heart…

I felt that God had prepared this passage for me long before I had even dreamed I might have the accident…when there were hard times, did I have a friend I could unburden my heart to, tell my suffering and pains?…

Lying on my back, looking up at the ceiling, I was seized by an intense sense of loneliness. I felt helpless before it… I thought that a person named Jesus might listen to me, might hold me lovingly in his arms…

haiku abandoned shell.jpg

Regardless of whether you follow a particular religion or no religion when people are faced with severe trauma, accident, disease, prolonged illness or near the end of life many may at some point ask one or more thought-provoking questions, maybe go through a period of self-reflection or self-doubt. Perhaps they consider what they took for granted or didn’t really worry about, or search for a belief that gives them inner peace:

What is life about? Is there a reason for it all? Why is life on Earth so diverse – was/is there a ‘design’? Can Science explain everything? Can religion? Is there life after death? Will I ever recover? Why me?

Seeking, and finding peace, if not answers, can be healing.

When my husband was dying we had many philosophical discussions because John was ill for a long time. He became an avid reader and thought more deeply about ideas and beliefs because he had time to digest and think about what he was reading. Time is a great commodity and gift if you use it well!

I remember telling him when various friends or family members added his name to their particular religion’s prayer list, he’d say with his usual cheeky grin,  “Good, I read an article and people who are prayed for live longer.”

The night before he died when Father Tony, the local Anglican priest called in and prayed at John’s bedside he said, “and the Heavenly Father is waiting for you, John, to hold you in his arms…”

John’s response, “Prove it!”

We all laughed and Father Tony said, “You have to trust me on this, John!” and at the funeral shared the anecdote from “my friend and pragmatist, John.”

We sang John’s favourite hymn from Royal Navy days, Abide With Me plus Lord of The Dance and he was carried out to The Internationale. If people wonder at the apparent conflict of beliefs I tell the story of the writer/educator, Paulo Freire who was asked, “How can you be a Marxist and a Christian?”

He answered, “No problem for me.”

Life is complicated and what people believe and how they cope with challenges is too. The honesty about Tomihiro’s journey, the authenticity in the telling, kept me reading and will remain with me. The simplicity of his explanation of how enriching the spirit and nurturing other senses can compensate for the loss of limbs and movement.

The Joy of Reading

He too discovered how reading enriches life – the power of story:

I spent a lot of time reading, using a simple device that let me lie on my back and read a book hanging open in front of my eyes. My mother would turn the pages for me.

Reading had not been a habit of mine when I was a child or a student… By reading books while lying on my back, I was able to learn the joy of reading. When nobody was at my bedside, there was no way to turn a page. So I kept reading the same page over and over again for as long as thirty or forty minutes. 

After such readings, I would often find something I had never noticed or understood. Some parts deeply impressed me, and I copied them into my sketchbooks…

From his hospital bed, or wheeled into the corridors by his mother, Tomihiro enjoyed being a people watcher but one day he catches sight of a person with a fox fur wrapped around her neck.

This inspires his first poem and more contemplation of not only his personal condition but how humans interact, adapt – what it means to be who we are …

And so entranced by the power of words, he studies, writes, and continually strives to improve his own writing.

In the Hallway
Hoshino Tomihiro (February 20)

A fox
Was watching
With glass eyes,
He was watching.
With the weight of his boneless neck
He was chewing his tail,
And he as watching
Me.

He noted how the glass eyes looked so sad – perhaps they reflected the feelings of his heart? He thought of the word ‘patience’ often used in letters he received. When he saw the fox transformed into neckwear, he sensed he saw himself:

I too had been living day after day, with my teeth digging into my body the more I tried to be patient… Why do I still need to hear ‘patience’…?

I haven’t really changed. The person I was before this accident – wasn’t that basically the same person I am today, even if I can’t move? Why then should I have to be patient with myself? Why should I live day by day with my teeth clenched?

Something did not make sense…

CROWN-OF-THORNS
Hoshino Tomihiro

When you can move but
must stay still,
You need endurance.
But when you’re like me,
And cannot move,
Who needs endurance
Stay still?
And soon enough,
The thorny rope of
endurance
Twisted round my body
Snapped off.

At this time, Miss Watanabe, a friend of Mr Yoneya’s visits, a Christian too,  she cared for her bedridden father for many years. From her first visit, Masako never misses a Saturday and eight years later they marry and return to live in Tomihiro’s home district near his parents. The blossoming of their relationship and her encouragement of his writing and art the impetus for his first major exhibition.

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Flowers Helped Him Bloom

When lying in bed, it was the flowers visitors brought that Tomihiro fixated on – they were beautiful, they were close at hand, and for a long time they represented the outside world he missed. Not surprising they were the first subjects he tried to draw.

When spring comes, the hospital garden is full of beds of blossoming flowers. And when I see them in bloom alongside my window my heart cheers up, even though I have to keep lying in bed… even if I feel depressed with all sorts of worries about my physical problems, all the trees outside may be in bud and even small weeds in bloom…

Regardless of what each human being may feel, the seasons go round and round in the flow of time. We may be happy or sad, become even angry and hateful… but what tiny creatures we are in the vast universe of nature!

There were always some flowers at my bedside brought by visitors and arranged in a vase by my mother. Lying on my back, I saw them day and night out of the corner of my eyes…

CHRYSANTHEMUMS
Hoshino Tomihiro

For over six years
Mr Kobayashi has been coming
To see me
With flowers.
The flowers he grows
Are as strong
As the weeds in the field
Sometimes even generously hosting bugs
Such flowers
I like most.
His flowers come
Wrapped in newspaper
On which there are left
His fingerprints.

COLUMBINES
Hoshino Tomihiro

Even a flower
When praised
Begins to look nicer,
Someone said so,
I remember.
Then I began to wonder
With fear,
If the flowers
Were looking at my painting.

sunflowers in vase.jpg

My favourite part in Tomihiro’s awakening and rebirth is when he writes about his mother. This woman deserves her own memoir! For the nine years, he was in the hospital she was with him, leaving the farm and village life in her husband’s care.

Tomihiro describes a New Year in the hospital when some patients and many staff have left for holidays. Those left decided to have a party.

All the attendants sat down together for tea on a straw mat spread in the center of the room. Normally, everybody in the hospital had to sit on a chair, not on a Japanese mat, as they did at home… my mother and the other attendants felt more relaxed squatting…

… I could not join them on the mat, but… I felt as if I was back home sitting on a mat with my mother.

They decided to have a singsong, taking it in turns –

While I was singing, I was worrying about my mother. She was to sing after me, and I had never heard her sing before. Can she sing a song? Does she even know a song to sing?…

Her turn came. She said, “I can’t really sing,” and begged the next person to go ahead. But nobody would… my mother began to sing… in a shy, thin voice… an old song I had never heard before.

… the trembling in her voice died away, and her timbre became stronger and stronger…

I was amazed. My mother, her face as shy as ever, now looked so different to me… the mother I had just seen singing was her real self. I had simply never noticed… 

She must have known many songs in her youth. Busy with bringing up children and farming, however, she must have forgotten, before she was aware of it, that she could sing.

While she worked in the small muddy family plot, doing side jobs for a small extra income well after the children had fallen asleep, and bringing us up without buying anything for herself, she must have forgotten about pleasures for herself…

I had never asked what she might want. She must have longed to take a trip or to buy some books to read. Or, even right at this moment, she might be thinking how much she would like to welcome in the New Year with my father back home…

The more I thought, the more ashamed I felt of myself. I had been concerned only about myself, thinking I alone had suffered from this injury…

I love this poem he wrote  –

poem 1

and this honest observation:

“When I was young and healthy, I used to feel very sorry for the handicapped. Sometimes I even felt uncomfortable when I saw them. While going around in my wheelchair, however, I learned something I had not noticed at all before. I was physically handicapped but I was not unhappy, nor did I dislike myself.”

It is all about perception and attitude. He explains it beautifully in a poem about a roadside flower whose Japanese name means poison and pain. He used to hate the flower because of its strange smell and preference for dank places.

Dokudami (Houttuynia)
Hoshino Tomihiro

Someone comes
And picks you up with care.
You have been scorned and despised
They all say you stink
You have been living very quietly
In this small nook along the road,
Looking up at the feet
Of passers-by,
As if waiting for someone to come to you
And need you.

Your flowers
Look just like white crosses.

The title of the book is a line from one of his poems written about the same common weed – it too suggests the mind can always be a little more perceptive and appreciative of the world we live in.

HOUTTUYNIA CORDATA
Hoshino Tomihiro

I didn’t know
How beautiful you were.
Here so close
But I didn’t know.

A book can be the gift that keeps on giving.

A good thought to end the year on and welcome 2019.

sunset glow.jpg

Corruption Unnoticed Is Corruption Unchecked – We Need Effective Journalists

journalist Walter Robinson

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.

talk at mlb uni introducing Robbie

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 hopes and fears for journalism and the future of democracy which “works well for everyone if  journalism works well for everyone.” He believed the suppression laws against the Australian Press are too oppressive.

free-press-quote-from-churchill

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.

quote about tyranny

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!

quote about leadership

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 journalists are 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

  1. accuracy
  2. completeness
  3. efficiency
  4. precision
  • 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.

Image result for when integrity dies within a person

Corruption Unnoticed is Corruption Unchecked

end of talk at melb uni 1

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 priests were 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 determined to 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 Journos  the 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.

And considering our own ABC, which provides remarkable examples of investigative journalism, is under threat, and yet again, we have The Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill, tightening laws regarding whistleblowing, protesting and data retention – the word that springs to mind is vigilance!

images.jpg

Knowledge Is Power- Here Comes The Sun!

repower poster

On Tuesday night, Environment Victoria and the Alternative Technology Association presented a seminar called Repower Your Home – one of the most informative events I’ve attended regarding the cost and value of ‘going solar’, and how renewable energy can help reduce energy costs and make Victoria, and indeed the world, a cleaner and more sustainable place to live.

Climate Change a huge issue, and in Victoria, as we head towards a state election in November, the production and consumption of energy and its cost a hot topic.

The 150 people present at the seminar were concerned about power prices but many also wanted to participate as a community to ensure whatever sustainable energy is produced, it is distributed fast, safe, and as fair as possible.

There were representatives from companies expert in providing advice and products to make homes more energy efficient. I came home with business cards and brochures plus memories of helpful, friendly conversations!

There is a lot of confusing and conflicting advice circulating, plus charlatans and cowboys prepared to take advantage of the gullible and ill-informed – more seminars like this are needed.

businesses in repower industry

Alternative Technology Association

I have been a member of this organisation for over a decade because I wanted to support scientists, engineers and environmentalists who cared about a sustainable future – their magazine ReNew, one of the first I received digitally.

They have always been ‘looking to the future’ and their work on improving electric vehicles fascinating and persistent.

Years ago, recently widowed and facing the replacement of an old hot water system,  I decided to go solar but was misled and ripped off by a company blanket marketing at the time and purporting to be experts. The installation of a solar powered hot water system became a nightmare of shoddiness and I eventually sought and achieved redress through the government ombudsman.

My ‘baptism by fire’ led me to join the ATA, do a lot more research about who to trust in this growth industry. The company that installed my main solar panels was recommended by the ATA and were reliable, efficient, and competitively priced.

For me, trust is always the key.

The Alternative Technology Association (ATA) is a not-for-profit organisation that enables, represents and inspires people to live sustainably in their homes and communities. Established in 1980, the ATA provides expert, independent advice on sustainable solutions for the home to households, government, industry and corporate clients.

The ATA has more than 6650 members across Australia walking the talk in their own homes. We have helped thousands of households save money and reduce their environmental footprint with information on energy efficiency, solar power, rainwater tanks, materials reuse and waste.

The ATA influences government policy by drawing on our technical expertise and members’ experiences. The ATA advocates in government and industry arenas for easy access to sustainable solutions as well as continual improvement of the technology, information and products needed to change the way we live. The ATA also provides consultancy services based on our technical expertise in energy, water and communications.

The ATA publishes two market-leading sustainable living magazines, Sanctuary: modern green homes and ReNew: technology for a sustainable future. The magazines have a combined readership of over 120,000.

The ATA has 14 active branches across Australia that meet regularly, holding informative seminars and workshops, sustainable house tours and attending fairs and events. We also provide an online and phone advice service for members.

 

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Keiran from the ATA and Anne from Environment Victoria

 

Guest Speaker, Keiran Price – Energy Analyst

Keiran is an energy analyst with the ATA who has worked on numerous projects assessing the benefits of solar installations for residents, businesses and local governments. Prior to joining the ATA, Keiran lived in London for four years and worked at the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets and the UK Energy Market Regulator, where he was involved in the development and administration of a number of renewable energy and energy efficiency schemes. Before moving to London, Keiran was a political staffer in South Australia, a position which inspired his passion for policies that support renewable energy, sustainability and the environment.

What Are You using Electricity For?

Keiran advised we should all check our bills and look at the retail tariff we are paying – all of us are probably being ripped off.

Choice magazine did a survey recently and reached the conclusion that to get the best tariff, you need to change your retailer every three months! Most people will not do that!

However,  Keiran suggested we must shop around and the best place to look first is the Victorian Government’s website: Victorian Energy Compare a trustworthy site kept up-to-date.

Is There An Energy Crisis & How Do We Cope?

Keiran referred to a recent article in The Age about soaring power bills for a pub in Mordialloc.

(Of course, the owner just happened to be a member of the Liberal Party and the informant Matthew Guy, the Opposition Leader, who might have just shot himself in the foot if you read the comments on the article.)

Article about Doyles

After suggesting, the pub’s owner could and should reduce consumption, Keiran explained how this can be done in most households.

6 Ways To Reduce Consumption

Keiran listed items in the order of those that consume the most energy:

  1. Install reverse cycle air conditioners – they are the most efficient for providing heating and cooling – the biggest consumers of electricity
  2. Install an efficient hot water system – shop around for a replacement before it is needed to get the best deal. Go electric with a heat pump hot water system being the most efficient.
  3. Appliances like dishwashers and washing machines can have a timer so they are used during the day and you get maximum benefit from solar panels. Avoid having a clothes dryer.
  4. Cooking – if you must cook with gas because you feel more comfortable then consider using portable bottles rather than mains gas because then you don’t pay supply charge of hundreds of dollars a year.
  5. Check your refrigerator is efficient – star rating on appliances important. Don’t have a second fridge in the garage ‘for beer’. Keep that second fridge turned off with the door slightly open, and only put it on before your party or the weekend or whenever the beer is going to be consumed.
  6. Lighting consumes electricity too – replace inefficient incandescent and halogen bulbs with LED. Turn screens off at powerpoint when not in use – television, laptops, desktop computers, phone battery chargers. Standby mode still uses power! Phone and tablet chargers referred to as ‘vampire load’ using just a little bit of power but if on all the time it still consumes energy!

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How Do you Make your Home More Efficient?

** Minimise heating and cooling.

  1. Roof and walls need insulation – a no-brainer.
  • Keiran advised checking the insulation is still in the roof if you had workmen come for any reason, especially electricians, because they often disturb insulation to get access to wiring and then forget to return insulation to correct place.
  • Pop your head up into the roof cavity and check your insulation is where it should be.
  1. Floorboards, windows and doors – retrofitting floors can be complicated but worth sealing or covering with carpet.
  • There can be gaps and airflow and these should be minimised to stop draughts, also around windows and doors.
  • Windows can be shaded – external in summer because on a hot day one square metre of warmed glass is the equivalent to running a bar heater!
  • There are numerous ways of stopping direct sunlight onto glass in summer: plants, trees, blinds, sails, shutters…
  • In winter you need good curtains to keep the heat in. No airflow over top and back out the bottom – install pelmets, they are important.
  • Honeycomb blinds are the most efficient but any blinds are better than exposed windows.
  1. Run energy efficient appliances.
  • Check the star rating – the number of stars important with up to $200 a year difference in usage.
  • Eg, Even if an appliance with high star rating costs $500 more to buy than one that uses higher energy, remember that in a little over 2 years you will have saved that difference in energy costs.

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Why Solar?

Having solar panels on your roof converts sunlight into direct current (DC), an inverter converts it into alternate current (AC) to power your home and appliances.
Any excess solar power is exported to the grid and you will be paid a feed-in tariff.

Some facts – In Australia March 2018:

  • 1.8 million homes have rooftop solar
  • That’s 20% of homes
  • Or 4.7 million Australians living under solar
  • Most get a good return for their investment
  • Very few have battery storage but numbers are rising – 12% at the moment.
  • Rooftop panels need space and access to the sun
  • The standard system size is 5kw

Steps Towards Solar

  1. Get your home assessed for suitability
  2. Speak to your energy retailer and find out about tariff charges
  3. Find a solar retailer and installer
  4. Organise installation
  5. Maintain the system

Keiran emphasised that the industry is not boom or bust anymore, the market is more mature and a lot of the cowboys in earlier days have been weeded out. (Hallelujah!)

However there are still some shockers out there so don’t be ripped off.

The Clean Energy Council has an approved solar retailer list. These are companies that have signed a code of conduct.

  • If you know people who have solar – listen to their experience because word of mouth recommendations can also be good indicators on who to avoid or employ.
  • Get multiple quotes and check warranties There are 50 good solar companies in Victoria but get at least three quotes.

If installed properly, solar panels need little maintenance, usually, the rain cleans any dust or grime. Don’t be ripped off by ‘professional maintenance’ companies – this appears to be the latest marketing/moneymaking ploy.

Your investment is usually paid off in 4-6 years regardless of the size of the system you install.
4kw $4960
6kw $6900
8kw $9200
Average feed-in tariff is 11.3 cents but this reducing to 9 cents in July.

** People are now encouraged to put more panels on their roof so better to install a bigger system at the beginning.

There is an economic and environmental benefit to solar panels.

Environmentallya 5kw system in Bayside is equal to saving 6.6 tonnes of CO2 annually and taking 2.2 cars off the road!

A Myth Exploded

  • It is untrue that the amount of energy to make solar panels costs more than what is saved.
  • In 1-2 years they pay back all energy used in their creation from mining, making, transporting to installing!!
  • Economic and Environmental benefits are there!!

Feed-In Tariffs

People ask why are we only paid 11 cents for power when we put into the grid and yet we must buy at 25 cents?

The retail tariff includes:

  • The companies generation costs at the power plant
  • Transmission costs to network to various suburbs
  • Distribution costs to maintain poles and wires
  • Administration costs when retailers bundle the lot together

Your feed-in tariff does not offset distribution and transmission costs.

15-19 cent feed-in tariff is probably the highest you will get – unless you were among the lucky early takers on premium feed-in tariffs of 60 and 25 cents. These rates not available now.

There has been fluctuation over the years – dropped as low as 5 – 8, up to 11-12, will be down again to 9 cents in July.

Some retailers have introduced time-varying feed-in tariffs because electricity is worth more depending on the time of day.

In the early morning and overnight little demand so off-peak. Early evening it is peak period.

What has Changed In Victoria?

  • There has been more demand because Hazelwood Coal Powered Station closed but also there is more solar going into the market.
  • Peak time is getting later and shorter.

Off-peak                    shoulder peak                       evening rates
7.1                              10.3                                           29

Solar panels peak period for generating is morning to the middle of the day when sun is hottest – to get an advantage of the movement of the sun, panels are now being aimed west as well as north because you want to generate power in the evenings.

Because of when most solar power is produced, it is not a good fit for time-varying feeds so make sure you

  • Become an all-electric home – disconnect from gas!
  • Set appliances like washing machines and dishwashers on timers
  • Install an electric hot water system, set the timer or make sure it runs during the day from solar
  • Reverse cycle air conditioners – set them to come on to heat or cool just before you come home – spread out their use

Batteries, Panels, Inverters

If you have a hybrid system you can charge a battery and leftover electricity is stored for reuse later in the day when the sun is not charging panels. A battery stores the excess generation from midday.

Why Add A Battery?

  • Save money
  • Store and reuse electricity
  • A back-up in case power goes out
  • Gives you energy independence
  • Supporting development of new technology

A typical battery that has a rated capacity of 10kw will always have 20% retained so usable capacity will be 8kw.

You must first charge the battery to have at least 8.9kw to get the 8kw and it is better to use the electricity from the panels when first generated.

A battery should pay for itself in 10 years or it is not worth the investment.

Different types of batteries:
1. Lead acid – 40% usable capacity – 10-year life like a car battery

  1. Lithium iron – type you get in phones/tablets etc. discharge quicker but like the lead acid, capacity still degrades over time.

(The above two have the more proven technology.)

  1. Flow battery sodium ion – 100% usable capacity and more environmentally friendly.

Go for smaller battery – one that is filled up every day and emptied overnight.
Retrofitting a battery onto an older system is always terrible payback and not economical yet.

Batteries are only economical if installed at same time as solar panels and you get ‘a deal’.

**However battery prices are coming down. It depends a lot on your usage and consumption and there are some good deals – shop around!

  • Batteries don’t have great benefit to the environment.
  • Long term it does benefit the grid and development of the technology and less money is needed for poles and wires.

Going Off The Grid-

  • For the average household, it is unlikely to be economic for decades. It will cost about $50,000.
  • You still need a petrol or diesel generator as back-up.
  • If $2000 annual bills – 25 years to pay going off the grid.
  • It is much better to increase your solar system and export to the grid.
  • Add more panels on the west facing roof to shift generator arc and it will be better payback than a battery. It may require a new or additional inverter.
  • install a hybrid inverter and get battery ready.

There will be new options to sell excess energy :

  1. Reposit – sell to wholesale market via Diamond Energy
  2. Smart Homes – energy management systems directing solar to where it is needed: diverters (hot water), charging electric cars where solar generating
  3. Renters will have options too
  4. Solar financing – through council rates, negotiating good deals.

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Question Time was Interesting

I love question time at events – hearing the thoughts and ideas of the audience, learning how much they have absorbed or what opinions they bring to an event…

In question time on Tuesday, a good point was made about the language we use – why talk about “payback” – we don’t use that term when we furnish our homes, renovate or decide to invest in having children!

Investing in solar panels should be regarded as an economic and environmentally sensible decision!

Another question raised the issue of quality of panels on the market – is German made best? (A few years ago German engineering and innovation considered the best, and in some people’s eyes, the only system to buy.)

Keirain said most German companies have moved operations to China and the majority of solar panel are made there now. He advised if you go with a good installer you will find they use good quality solar panel brand!

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Environment Victoria’s Efficiency Officer, Anne Martinelli

Environment Victoria want to encourage more solar and renewables. In Victoria,
our energy system already transforming – Hazelwood closed in 2017 – the 9th large power station in Australia to close in 5 years.

  • Renewable energy – large scale and household scale – transition inevitable as cost reduces.
  • How it is managed and who benefits is not guaranteed.

20% of Victorian climate pollution comes from our homes so upgrading efficiency is important.

Many households face significant barriers:

  • Access to accurate information – it is technically complex, the renewable sector changing rapidly, lots of misinformation around
  • Cost – hurdles to bill saving – those who need it the most can’t afford upfront costs.
  • Some people are locked out of rooftop solar for various reasons: they are renting, they live in an apartment block, the roof is unsuitable or not in right situation

Environment Victoria is focusing on making political parties have good policies for the coming November election.

  1. Home energy hubs like Scotland. A network of regional one-stop advisory service like what the old SEC Home Advisory Service used to be over 30 years ago!
    Tariffs efficiency assessments, retrofit organisations, access to financial assistance. One stop shop for information from trusted sources. Scale up existing council community sector services.
    Lots of organisations like ATA offer free advice but who knows they exist?
  2. No interest, rates-based financing through councils of efficiency and solar upgrades. Currently, the Victorian Government has a pilot scheme with 22 councils helping aged pensioners and low-income households upgrade to solar. They aim to have 1000 participants and are monitoring daytime consumption. This should be scaled statewide.
  3. Virtual Power Plant – a partnership between government, industry and retailers that will finance solar and battery upgrades for low-income households, including those in social housing.
  • No upfront costs, guaranteed household bills savings
  • Maximise wider market benefits of solar and batteries
    EG. South Australia Tesla batteries – company still owns battery but connecting 50,000 households in SA. Victoria could do three times that number – maybe scope with the election coming…

We need:

  • Energy efficiency (not necessarily solar) standards for rental homes. The Residential Tenancies Act renewal a great opportunity to set standards at a basic achievable level to keep affordable.
  • Make landlords invest in bill saving appliances, keep wiring and plugs efficient, LED lights.
  • Evidence suggests: 50% homes for sale rated 5 stars or greater
    40% rental houses = zero efficiency rating
  • We must set standards so rental properties have insulation etc – perhaps help landlords so they are not putting the costs on renters.
  • There are 600,000 rental homes in Victoria.

Climate Change Is Real.

Working towards a sustainable lifestyle in our cities and countryside must be a priority.
This November use your voting power wisely – ask your local candidate

  • do they have a commitment to renewables,
  • a fairer society,
  • a safer sustainable environment –

Then ask how they will achieve their targets!

repower focus statement

World Book Day – A Day I Could Celebrate Every Day!

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World Book Day, April 23rd

“Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination and the journey. They are home.”

Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life

If people, especially family and friends, are asked to agree on one object associated with me, they’d probably all say, ‘a book’.

I’m often tagged in posts or memes doing the rounds of Facebook featuring books, author quotes, libraries, bookcases and book bags – and recently, even a cake decorated as if a library.

No matter where I go, I’m always drawn to the books on display or for sale!

 

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Bookstall at Quilting and Craft Fair

 

The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

Dr Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!

I’ve written posts devoted to reading books, writing books, book launches, local libraries and literacy in general.

I’ve thanked my parents for valuing reading and books, and I know I’ve instilled that same love in my children.

“The habit of reading is the only enjoyment I know in which there is no alloy. It lasts when all other pleasures fade. It will be there to support you when all other resources are gone. It will be present to you when the energies of your body have fallen away from you. It will last you until your death. It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.”

Anthony Trollope

I remember favourite authors from childhood – I loved Louisa M Alcott. Birthdays and Christmas were special celebrations with a new book always part of, and sometimes the main present.

my louisa alcott books

I still have some of those much-treasured childhood books and on a recent trip to Orkney and the Shetland Islands, I spent several hours in a wonderful exhibition with displays of books and toys reminiscent of my 1950s childhood, confirming that I’m not the only one who hangs onto books for years!

I can remember Mrs Saffin, the librarian at Croydon High School insisting I had to borrow other books when she saw I was working my way through a shelf of the Just William series written by English author Richmal Crompton.

The adventures of the cheeky schoolboy William Brown whose naughty escapades always seemed to end in afternoon tea of iced buns and lemonade appealed to me! But Mrs Saffin was right, I was in high school and needed to expand my horizons.

“A book is a device to ignite the imagination.”

Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader

William’s pluck reminded me of George aka Georgina, one of the main characters in the Famous Five stories by Enid Blyton.

I wanted to be adventurous, solve mysteries and have fun – and the thought of going off on picnics with a satchel of sandwiches, cream buns and fizzy pop, a dream come true when you are one of six siblings in a working-class family.

I expect both of these talented female authors appealed to girls like myself who either didn’t fit or ached to break, the mould of traditional expectations of girls to be pretty and demure.

Ill in bed after an emergency appendectomy, I received a bundle of books from my Aunt Chrissie: The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, The Railway Children and The Wool-Pack.

I read about grief, illness,  feudalism, colonialism, social inequality, the importance of education and the necessity to have dreams.

I read about broken families and boarding schools, kindness and meanness, courage and cowardice, love and hate.

The books all written about or from the point of view of a child or adolescent.

I remember being shocked to read that in medieval times prepubescent girls like me were married off, that even in so-called more modern times people of colour or those with a disability were maltreated and abused.

How could people believe your birth should determine your status in life?

And how exciting to learn that being adventurous, curious and even disobedient reaped rewards.

Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books gave me a thirst for adventure.  The Magic Faraway Tree indulged childhood fantasies but novels allowed me to fall in love with history, belonging, and longing, and more importantly writing!

I wanted to be a storyteller and write stories about ordinary and extraordinary people whether in the past or the now!

When I was studying for my masters’ degree, I had to reflect on what books helped shape my view of society and culture.

  • To look critically at the dominant ways in which our culture operates.
  • What books provided insight or a ‘light bulb’ moment into what it means to be human?
  • Which books helped me understand my place in the long history of human development?

Although most of the books were written from the perspective of western culture they raised issues and aspects of racism, sexism, feminism, Marxism, socialism, fascism, colonialism, and other “isms” that don’t immediately spring to mind. 

They created questions and still create conversations with people who have read them. They explore themes that are timeless. They have been made into television or cinematic films, either through adaptations or appropriation.

“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.”

Charles William Eliot

Five books I’m Glad I Still Own

A Patch of Blue

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Written 1961 and adapted to film starring Sidney Poitier in 1965.

I read this novel in 1967 when I was 14 years old, probably inspired by seeing the movie on television. The author,  Australian Elizabeth Kata produced a book with the main message of tolerance, a theme demanding we see beyond the colour of a person’s skin and reject the negativity and destructiveness of racial prejudice.

The brutal effects of an abusive family contrast with the power of education, friendship and love. 

The ending of the book is not as optimistic as the ending of the film and on reflection may have been the first time I realised or began to question the difference between how literature and film tell stories.

The book is set in America, but it made me more aware of the treatment of indigenous Australians because the 1967 Referendum Campaign was happening and stimulated public and family discussions about racism.

The 1967 Referendum made history: Australians voted overwhelmingly to amend the constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census and allow the Commonwealth to create laws for them.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

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Now a free Ebook. Written in 1910 but not published until 1914.

This novel by Irish-born Robert Tressell was compulsory reading in my family circle. An accurate historical account of the lives of the working class, it delivers a comprehensive explanation of capitalism and the need for a socialist alternative.

In my last two years of high school, I studied British History, Australian History and Eighteenth-Century History and during one of the many discussions I had with my father, he handed me Tressell’s book,

Your Papa bought this and told me to read it, I’m passing it on…

When I read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists at 16, it helped me understand what life was like for my grandparents and what shaped my father’s staunch belief in trade unionism as a means to improve the conditions of workers and challenge the excesses of capitalism. It nurtured my desire to work for social justice and later seek employment within the trade union movement.

Robert Tressell’s tale of life for craftsmen and building workers in the early part of the 20th century whilst working in the mythical, yet all too authentic, Mugsborough reveals clearly the exploitative nature of capitalism. Since its publication, it has been reprinted many times, adapted as plays, made into a television series, films and docudramas. The Labour Movement has justifiably conferred biblical status on this much-celebrated book.

Readers experience the tragedies and joys of the characters and the harshness of their workplace with the inherently unequal relationship between workers and bosses in Edwardian England as the system impacts on social relations, human activity, and their dreams for a better life.

In 2010, on one of my early forays online I made contact with Reg Johnson, the husband of Robert Tressell’s granddaughter. We exchanged emails and letters and he shared some family information and history, which enriched my understanding of the author’s struggles to get his writing published and to retain the integrity of his story – a saga that will be worthy of someone’s PhD or even another novel, I’m sure.

Crime and Punishment

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Free Ebook. Written in 1866 – in serial form.

I studied this novel by Fyodor (Mikhailovich) Dostoevsky, at school and the story, characters, theme and concepts still fascinate me. It is a great novel to stimulate discussion about whether the ends justify the means, definitions of good and evil, examine ethics and morality, and is there a fine line between sanity and madness?

The protagonist, Raskolnikov, a poor law student murders an old woman who is reviled as a pawnbroker/money-lender, but her sister who is an innocent bystander is also killed. The background is a Russia under a reforming Tsar but nevertheless a country of great inequality and poverty for freed serfs and an economy undergoing transition. 

The rich description and historical detail satisfied my love of history. It was also the first novel I had read that introduced the image of the ‘good prostitute ‘– a woman forced into prostitution by extreme poverty. Dostoevsky’s Christian socialist beliefs are not hidden as he exposes the ‘immorality’ of drunkenness and domestic violence in St Petersburg, the main setting of the novel.

There is also Siberia, a vast place with penal outposts used to banish and punish people considered a danger to society. (Dostoevsky experienced Siberia when exiled along with several other intellectuals and so described that setting realistically.)

Raskolnikov realises by committing murder he has killed his own humanity and we watch his psychological, physical and emotional health deteriorate as he struggles with deep guilt and moves towards redemption. His unravelling helped by a dogged detective who suspects Raskolnikov and is determined to punish him for the crime.

The book is a good vehicle to examine personal ethics, showing life often presents difficult choices and we may regret a choice we make. It contends ‘Fate’ is an illusion and we all have free will, but the author’s realism is underpinned by his personal life experience and political leanings and belief in Russian Orthodoxy.

This book started my fascination with Russia and I promised myself I’d visit the country ‘one day’.

Last year, I fulfilled that dream and not only travelled through Siberia on the Trans-Siberian Railway but went to Dostoevsky’s house in St Petersburg, and saw where he would have written his novels, the streets he walked, imagined the places and events that sparked his imagination…

Visited Dostoevsky’s house today where he wrote Crime And Punishment among other novels. This city was a character in his most famous stories. It’s where he developed as a writer and where his most famous fictional characters lived. Exiled to Siberia for 10 years for revolutionary activities he had to make his name all over again. This is his last address when he was earning a comfortable income after renting many cheap appartments. He rented here in 1846 and then returned 1878 until his death in 1881. It’s fitting this building should be a museum encapsulating the beginning and the end of his writing career! I breathed deeply, imagined the views from the window – oh, if only part of his talent still floated in the air to be transferred to admirers like me.

The Women’s Room

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Written 1977. Made into a film for television in 1980 starring Lee Remick and Ted Danson.

This semi-autobiographical and debut novel by Marilyn French was published at the height of the Women’s Liberation Movement and explored the oppression of women and the need for change through the protagonist Mira who escapes an inequitable 1950s marriage and returns to study at university.

The questions asked in The Women’s Room still cause debate: Is anatomy destiny? Are all men potential rapists – do they look at women as sexual objects first before recognising other qualities? Does traditional marriage suffocate women?

It was criticised for being too anti-men and having too few male characters, yet struck a chord with many women who felt trapped in society’s idea that a woman should seek to be a wife and mother and always put the needs and desires of others before her own.

The biting social commentary made me examine my mother’s life and those of her generation and question what I wanted from a relationship. The anger and despair of the women portrayed in the novel spurred me to work for change and social justice. I had read books detailing the aims and philosophy behind Women’s Liberation and French’s novel personalised and wove feminism’s threads into a rich, emotional tapestry.

I worked in a Women’s Refuge (Maroondah Halfway House) and met women who felt they couldn’t speak up or who had been beaten for speaking out. They didn’t have the privileges of the middle-class American women who people this novel and it was more difficult for them to choose a different path. Those of us at the refuge collective tried to enable the women who sought help, ensured they felt safe enough to be empowered to make choices.

I liked the style of Marilyn French’s writing, the authenticity of her characters and the pacing, not only of the main story but a series of subplots. These were voices who needed to be heard with messages I could understand.

No Great Mischief

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Written 2001. 

In this novel about the Scottish diaspora in Canada, Canadian Alistair Macleod reflects on the varied journeys of members of Clan MacDonald forced from their home during the infamous Highland Clearances. 

It explores identity, family loyalty, the connection between past and present, connection to the land, the inevitability of change, the importance and effect of cultural values, and the resilience of love, especially family love.

The narrator shows how the history of a family (mini-narrative) is rooted in the larger mega-narrative of historical events. I belong to the MacInnes Clan who share a history with the MacDonalds and this novel contributed to my understanding of the value of knowing your heritage and encouraged the exploration of my identity.

As an immigrant to Australia, I often reflect on my childhood in Scotland. Have often wondered and asked the question – where do I belong?

The narrator, Alexander MacDonald, guides us through his family’s mythic past recollecting the heroic stories of loggers, miners, excessive drinkers and adventurers. The theme of exile and links to the ancestry of their highland clan everpresent.

The legendary patriarch left the Scottish Highlands in 1779 to resettle in “the land of trees” with descendants becoming a separate Nova Scotia clan. Brothers and cousins, expert miners travel around the world and the protagonist Alexander and his twin sister, leave Cape Breton and prosper, but are haunted by the past.

No Great Mischief resonated with me because I too feel the blood ties that bind me to the land from which I came despite establishing a family here in Australia.

A recent trip back to my birth country reinforced links not only to the Scottish Highlands and my grandfather’s Isle of Skye but also to Northern Ireland and the Antrim coast, my mother’s homeland.

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“The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall; nations perish; civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead.”

Clarence Shepard Day

 

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Things found in donated books, Oxfam

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Why Get Out of Bed In The Morning?

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Receiving an Active Voice Award

Why Do We Do What We Do?

 A presenter at an education conference I attended last month asked this question of the room full of representatives from Neighbourhood Houses and community-based Learn Locals – the sector I have worked and volunteered in for over two decades.

‘WHY’ is such an important question to ask and often the hardest to answer – just ask any parent of a young child!

It is a basic part of human nature to be curious and young children are programmed to ask countless questions as they learn about the world, regardless of whether the answer is easy or esoteric.

Later, in adolescence, the ‘why’ or perhaps a ‘why not’ becomes more a challenge to authority than general inquisitiveness – and giving answers even harder!

The education conference was titled “TOWARDS SMART AND SUSTAINABLE ADULT & COMMUNITY EDUCATION” and organised by Adult and Community Education Victoria. (ACE Vic)

The Topics Explored

  • Looking at smarter ways to work that create flexible and viable options for not-for-profits.
  • How community education & training can continue to be a critical part of the Victorian educational environment.
  • The sharing of models with future ideas and practice in engaging and holding learners.
  • What it means to be a sustainable community organisation. This includes focusing on strategy, strategic business development, the learner-centric positioning of the organisation in a competitive marketplace
  • How you can expand your contacts and networks, capture ideas & opportunities, and improve your market intelligence.

 me outside Mordi neighbourhood house

I was one of the few teachers at the conference – most attendees were managers and administrative staff so I was out of my comfort zone – again.

We were challenged to articulate why we do what we do…

  • what’s our purpose, cause, belief?
  • why do we get out of bed in the morning?
  • why should anyone care?

The presenter referred to The Golden Circle, a TED talk by Simon Sinek who declared “people buy why you do it not what you do.” Check it out on youtube.

Sinek wrote the book “Start with Why” and his premise is not the “what” that motivates us to jump out of bed in the mornings, it is the “why.”

In 2009, Simon Sinek started a movement to help people become more inspired at work, and in turn, inspire their colleagues and customers. Since then, millions have been touched by the power of his ideas, including more than 28 million who’ve watched his TED Talk based on START WITH WHY — the third most popular TED video of all time. Sinek starts with a fundamental question: Why are some people and organizations more innovative, more influential, and more profitable than others? Why do some command greater loyalty from customers and employees alike? Even among the successful, why are so few able to repeat their success over and over? People like Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and the Wright Brothers had little in common, but they all started with WHY. They realized that people won’t truly buy into a product, service, movement, or idea until they understand the WHY behind it. START WITH WHY shows that the leaders who’ve had the greatest influence in the world all think, act, and communicate the same way — and it’s the opposite of what everyone else does. Sinek calls this powerful idea The Golden Circle, and it provides a framework upon which organizations can be built, movements can be led, and people can be inspired. And it all starts with WHY.

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Most people agreed that it is not the “what” that drives us to give great service and try and excel, but the “why.

And losing sight of your “why” is destined to make you an average or poor performer, probably unhappy, and not where you want to be.

Each table in the room was asked to discuss

  • what we do,
  • how we do it, and more importantly
  • why we do it!

The presenter had Powerpoint and we had the ubiquitous large piece of paper and pens to record ideas.

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I shared a table with representatives from Echuca, Ararat, Beaufort, Yarraville, Footscray, Bacchus Marsh, and Ballarat. Although the sector is female dominated, we had a few males and there was a range in age in the group too. Diversity important.

Firstly, we made sure we were clear on 

What we do:

  • we provide a safe space to learn, grow and build
  • we build a community
  • we create community connectedness

 

Then we moved on to –

Why do we do it?

  • Because we love and value people and community
  • Because we want to educate the community
  • Because we believe everyone has a right to education to lead a better life
  • Because we believe everyone deserves a chance and we can help them to be happy if they join our family – we are about inclusion
  • To empower people – living our values – we want to share and let them enjoy our values
  • To provide an opportunity to people who often wouldn’t fit into any other educational system
  • To act and show our actions say to people ‘we love you and want to make you happy’
  • To provide a sense of direction and offer an opportunity to as many people as possible
  • To empower people to live a fuller life with access to education to suit their needs
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First Memoir to Manuscript Class at Longbeach Place Chelsea

For the community education sector this discussion and reflection on doing the valuable job we do

  • provides guiding principles as to what we do and how we do it
  • informs our clients of our reason for being.
  • determines our behaviour
  • reflects our values.
  • determines the sort of clients we will attract and deal with because they will share in our why
  • determines the sort of people who will work in the centres and continue to represent the sector

Understanding The Sector

  • We are not commercially based providers but community-based.
  • The sector is unique.
  • The sector is not a public provider like others, nor is it commercial. It is not for profit, but we can provide programs similar to TAFE.
  • The research has been done and the government will give support through quality partnerships so there can be no implication the standard at the community level is less than expected from the TAFE sector.

Adult community education provides

  • employment pathways,
  • recreational activities, 
  • builds life skills, and
  • also gives people a second chance at education.

The community sector is a dynamic contribution to all of these reasons of why people enrol in courses or attend activities!

As a writing teacher, I know why I do what I do

Writers are continually told to remember the “W’s” – who, what, where, when and why…

If you want a story to be memorable and engaging getting the why right is a winner – a strong character needs motivation, reader’s demand a mystery or back story that explains the good and bad actions of the hero and villain as well as the current reasons for their actions and story conflict.

And so it is with a one-off workshop or a career teaching others to write –

We need to reflect and dig deep and answer honestly what inspires us and what motivates us so that we can not only give of our best but also be satisfied and happy ourselves.

Enthusiasm, passion and joy necessary to inspire others.

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  • Understanding why we do what we do comes with deep reflection of self.
  • Awareness of what makes our heart beat. 
  • What experiences/values in our lives lend an influence as to why we do the things we do.

Looking back I remember why I started to write and also teach writing.

( I always say I fell into the teaching career, but on reflection it was perhaps a natural progression from volunteering and establishing the Mordialloc Writers’ Group to teaching at Sandybeach Centre and then Mordialloc Neighbourhood House, Godfrey Street Community House and Longbeach Place, Chelsea – a tiny ripple in a small pond.)

  • I was lucky to have the influence of some great teachers – one in particular Dr Norman Saffin (PhD in Literature). He taught me four HSC subjects in my last year at Croydon High School and instilled a love of history but also a confidence in my writing ability.
  • I had wonderful parents who nurtured a love of books and great writers.  A book can change your life – never underestimate the power of story – you are never alone if you can read!
  • My father’s belief in socialism and my mother’s Christianity instilled a commitment to serving community and fighting for not only equality but equity.  I can’t imagine a life that didn’t include being of service.
  • My Dad had a talent for creative writing and loved poetry – I can still hear his voice reciting Rabbie Burns. Dad always encouraged me to fulfil my dream of being a published writer – I suspect because if times were different that’s what he would have chosen to be.
  • Writing is as natural as breathing to me.
  • The joy I feel when I write keeps me alive – whether I share the words with others or not. I feel privileged to have been able to follow my heart – to see my words in print and to help others become published.
  • What a wonderful motivation it is when words work  or connect with a reader and they take the time to tell me or thank me for helping them on their writing journey,  and being in a classroom with people who want to write is a fantastic privilege – especially because so many are talented writers!

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Doing what you like is freedom.

Liking what you do is happiness.

Next month the City of Kingston will be showcasing neighbourhood houses at the Arts Centre in Moorabbin, and people will have the opportunity to participate in a free writing creatively class as well as other activities.

  • Date& Venue: Monday 21 May at 1.30pm – 3.30pm Writing Creatively in Gallery 2.
  • Contact Rebekah Longbeach Place on 9776 1386

Come along and say hello to me – you never know you might discover that writing or another activity will decide or confirm why you get up in the morning!

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Come celebrate community heART

I start work tomorrow for the new term at Godfrey Street Community House – another venue to check out for great activities.

Tuesday Class Poem – Godfrey Street, Bentleigh

Mairi Neil

Tuesday, a scarlet day, like a magnificent sunset
It’s a blushing woman, ‘Gone with the Wind
It’s a juicy Victoria plum, dripping sweetness
It’s a burning bush, splashing golden sparks
It’s the last glass of claret, enriching palates
It’s a heated argument, getting out of hand
It’s a colicky baby, seeking comfort
We muse, we brainstorm, we mindmap
Writer’s block banished as we write.