A Dickens of An Exhibition For Writers of Fashionable Fiction!

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While attending two great free workshops on aspects of Scottish history at the Prahran Mechanics’ Institute Victorian History Library last week, I picked up a flyer for another event in Stonnington – also free. (I’m prepared for the jokes about stereotypical Scot being mean!)

This is a fabulous opportunity to learn some historical background and context for many of the female characters in the classic novels of Charles Dickens and to see yet another superb collection of clothes from the Dressing Australia Museum of Costume that provided the wonderful collection of clothes and other items for Be persuaded – Jane Austen, an exhibition by Glen Eira Council in January 2019.

Fiona and Keith Baverstock use the period fashion, textiles and fashion ephemera in their collection to create a themed exhibition, which they then take on tour. The research and attention to detail and the information supplied truly awesome.

Similar to many people, I read Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist while at high school. Later, I watched the many film and television adaptations of novels such as Bleak House, David Copperfield, The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Nicholas Nickelby produced by the BBC among others.

Many of Dickens’ characters and their utterances are household names. I’ve used quotes from his books in my creative writing classes, also extracts from newspaper articles because Dickens was a journalist before becoming a novelist.

Although, as one exhibit explains, he would fit right into the current complaints of  ‘fake news’ because Dickens had a dramatic streak. Always a creative writer at heart with emphasis on the ‘creative’ instead of factual reporting, he embellished stories to make them more interesting for the readers!

Charles Dickens is revered as a writer and most of the accolades are well-deserved. However, a neat summary of his life, plus many books, plays, and articles written revealing his complex personality, misbehaviour, and shabby treatment of his wife may disappoint some fans.

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First impressions of the Exhibition are of being on set preparing to make a historical film; the display of dresses stunning and cleverly grouped. The varied colours and designs catch your eye and display cases have accessories laid out as if in preparation to be donned.

You start to wander around the room and become absorbed in the stories of the women who peopled the novels of Dickens. You may be fascinated when examining the outfits and imagining their lives. What must it have been like moving around in voluminous gowns, restrictive corsetry and even more restrictive social mores and expectations?

dickens quote

Sairey (Sarah) Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit

Dickens had a talent for creating memorable caricatures – comical but also despicable. They often personified the seven deadly sins: envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth and wrath… and introduced words from the vernacular that became common usage.

Sarah Gamp exemplified greed, selfishness and as a drunken nurse/midwife displayed a callous disregard for others. She was ‘ a potent weapon in the campaign against untrained, incompetent nurses. It took a Florence Nightingale to fully expose and sweep aside the armies of Sarah Gamps.’

 

The 1840s gown with evidence of wear and tear is slate-coloured striped taffeta. She presided over so many deaths so wears a mourning apron and black, crepe trimmed taffeta mourning cape and her ‘gamp’ (umbrella).

The image of Mrs Gamp’s ‘gig’ umbrella clutched to her person wherever she went, or displayed ‘with particular ostentation’ against the chimney breast of her bird-sized apartment above the bird fancier’s shop in Holborn so resonated with readers that ‘gamp’ became synonymous with umbrella, just as ‘Sarah Gamp’ became synonymous with a slovenly, inebriated ‘nurse’.

A gig was a light carriage with two wheels pulled by a single horse. In the latter part of the 19th century, it was deemed suitable for ladies to drive around their estates or into the village.

... ‘the lady would need a nifty weapon to beat off any ne’er-do-wells with the temerity to approach, and when stepping down she would need a handy little parasol. The gold cap comes off the sycamore case, the parasol slides out and screws neatly into the gold tip on the other end, Voila, protection from the sun or rain.’

There was nothing dainty or lady-like about Sarah Gamp. She would have driven a cart and her ‘gamp’ a heavy umbrella.

Catherine Dickens – the discarded wife

It was the actress Miriam Margoyles portraying Catherine Dickens in her play Dickens’ Women based on or inspired by 23 different characters in the novels by Dickens that made me think more deeply about how women were portrayed by the great storyteller.

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One reviewer said the production highlighted Dickens’ “obsession with youthful beauty and his baffling relationships with his sister-in-law”.

The detailed notes along with the chosen gown for Dickens’ wife are not complimentary to the man and emphasise how unfair the legal, as well as the social system,  was regarding the treatment of women.

catherine dickens info.jpg

Reading about Catherine and looking at the dresses on display you can’t help but notice the tiny waists, the design drawing attention to the breasts and of course, being the era of gloves and hats, there was a dress code or expectation a lady had accessories.

  • How long did it take to get dressed?
  • How complicated were the designs to maintain – especially considering the material used?
  • And in an era of women producing baby after baby, how unsuitable were those clothes for pregnancy, breastfeeding and caring for children, let alone housework.

My paternal grandmother was married in 1900, the clothes hadn’t changed that much from the years before and the family story is that she fainted twice on her wedding day as her sister pulled the corset strings tight enough to ensure she had the obligatory 18-inch waist to fit her wedding dress!

Nancy in Oliver Twist, a ‘fallen woman’

Dickens never used the term prostitute or sex worker in his novel but readers are under no illusion about Nancy and her friend Bet described:

“They wore a good deal of hair, not very neatly turned up behind, and were rather untidy about the shoes and stockings. They were not exactly pretty, perhaps; but they had a great deal of colour in their faces, and looked quite stout and healthy. being remarkably free and easy with their manners, Oliver thought them to be very nice girls indeed. Which there is no doubt they were.”

I read Oliver Twist when I was fifteen and stark images of Victorian England and the appalling living standards of the poor in cities like London remain with me. Dickens

… knew how to hold an audience. The themes in his novels did, however, challenge the accepted beliefs of the day. Oliver Twist shines a light into the dark underbelly of life in the cities like London, confronting the comfortable complacent with the relationship between poverty and crime, revealing the iniquity and inequity of the Poor Laws and the Workhouse system – and its inept and corrupt officials.”

I can remember hoping that Nancy, who showed kindness to Oliver, would somehow be miraculously transformed and freed from the seedy clutches of Bill Sykes, but deep down knew her shockingly violent death was inevitable.

The ruched and frilled dress with elaborate cording, tight waist, laced back and revealing cleavage was chosen because the silky style would have appealed to Nancy, even if she would have preferred a more striking colour. This dress was ‘Perkins Purple’ and faded over time to mauve and then pearly grey.

In my imagination, Nancy would have worn feathers in her bonnet and always had a shawl!

Miss Havisham – who can forget a woman scorned?

There have been many adaptations of Great Expectations and it remains one of Dickens’ more popular novelsAgain he takes on the establishment, the ‘haves’ and emphasises the divide between the rich and poor.

The powerful regard poverty as a crime and use prison to punish those who ‘have not’. The story of a young man overcoming obstacles to achieve success another of his recurring themes.

But it is the jilted, embittered, and wealthy Miss Havisham living in a ruined mansion with her adopted daughter Estella, who fascinates and intrigues readers and leaves a lasting impression. She still wears her wedding dress as if frozen in time.

Twenty minutes to nine was the moment the letter arrived revealing the calumny of her fiance. There she was in her wedding gown, the wedding breakfast and adornments laid out in readiness, one satin slipper still to don. And there she remained. Since then, the wedding breakfast, the decorations, the room have been weighed down by dust and cobwebs, have been nibbled by decay and vermin till the house itself is crumbling. The fraudster Compeyson took her future and her fortune (although obviously not all of it) and might as well have taken her life.

Her revenge is Estella, whom she has fashioned into a weapon to destroy men and the hapless Pip is the whetstone on which Estella is to hone her skills…

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The addendum to “Expectations unfulfilled – Miss Havisham” states that

Dickens has trouble with consistency when he sets his novels in an earlier era. This is certainly evident with the ages and setting of Great Expectations. We’ve chosen to place Miss Havisham’s wedding in the early 1800s and have dressed her in a distressed, disintegrating Regency style gown.’

All of the costumes are original 19th-century outfits and so the ‘distressed’ signs are natural. Dressing Australia’s disclaimer that they’ve chosen what they think fits/suits each character rather than adhering strictly to the publication date of the novels, although many of the costumes coincide nicely.

Oliver Twist was published in 1837, but Nancy’s gown is from a later decade. It was chosen to represent the ‘tart with a heart‘ and Nancy’s notion of what is ladylike. Estella’s exquisite gown is from the late 1850s when Dickens was writing Great Expectations, published in 1860, although the story was set in an earlier era.

Madame Defarge – Knitting while heads rolled

Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities, a novel set in the time of the French Revolution is the embittered wife of a wine shop owner who owed his status and business to her revolutionary fervour.

She enjoyed knitting the names of the aristocrats she plotted to send to the guillotine and while weaving their names into Liberty Caps sat and watched their heads roll off the beheading machine.

Acknowledged as a leader of the Tricoteuse Movement, which evolved from the Market Women heroines who marched on Versailles and became ‘too uncontrollable and troublesome, and barred from the gallery of the National Convention and from political assemblies’ she proves to be devious and brutal even if her vengeful crusade facilitated by The Reign of Terror is justified.

Madame Defarge’s sister and unborn child, brother, brother-in-law and father were all killed by Darnay’s uncle, assisted by his father.


The green shot silk gown is ‘somewhat distressed’ polonaised over a black quilted satin petticoat. The Liberty Cap is pinned with a rosette and a rose. (Madame Defarge popped a rose in her cap warning that ‘outsiders’ were nearby and it was not safe for revolutionaries or the Tricoteuse to speak.)

Confronting the Ghosts of Christmas

A Christmas Carol probably ranks as one of the most read of Dickens’ novels along with Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. If not read, most English speaking people will still have heard of Scrooge or know what it means to call someone a scrooge!

A Christmas Carol sold out the minute it hit the bookstands in 1843 and has remained a favourite ever since. It has the feel-good factor – goodness triumphs over the mean and mean-spirited, adversity can be overcome, redemption is possible…

A man without conscience is not confronted by his own humanity, yet that is precisely what the Ghost of Christmas Past does to Scrooge. Look at how you used to be. Look at how others used to view you. Look at how you felt when facing rejection. Look at the beginnings of your loss of innocence when you chose greed over love.

A man entirely without compassion cares not when confronted by disturbing images of the distress of others, a man without imagination does not see what he might be missing. Yet that is precisely what the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge.

A man who is impervious to the consequences of his actions, who cares not that he has alienated all who might care for him, who does not mind a lonely, uncelebrated life and death will take no notice of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. And yet Scrooge does.

He has confronted his ghosts, is redeemed and regains his humanity and compassion.

The exhibition’s vision of the three ghosts as women enabled an interesting choice of costumes:

  • Christmas Past represented by a distressed Regency gown – a style from Scrooge’s youth
  • Christmas Present represented by a brown moire two-piece gown – a style from Scrooge’s present.
  • Christmas Yet to Come represented by a brown stripe taffeta gown of 1869 – a style yet to come.

There are so many characters from other novels with their stories summarised and the reasons for the choice of garments explained – please catch the exhibition before it closes.

Stand and ponder how these women lived – imagine riding in a carriage beside them, walking down a crowded London street navigating flower sellers, spruikers, beggars, even chimney sweeps… attending a dress fitting, visiting for high tea, soliciting, waiting for an errant husband or an abandoned lover, knitting while aristocrats lost their heads or haunting mean-spirited men!

Pity the poor seamstresses

Whenever I read about the world of Dickens and see the clothes of the era, the textiles, antiquated machinery, and the appalling factory conditions I am amazed at the complicated patterns, intricate beading and buttons, and delicate embroidery on the gowns, shawls and hats.

How resilient and talented must those tailors and seamstresses have been and yet we know workers in the clothing trades historically and even in current times are consistently some of the most abused, underpaid and exploited.

In much more modern times, my Aunt Chrissie was a tailoress in Scotland and eventually owned her own sewing school when she migrated to Australia. My older sister, Cate inherited Chrissie’s gift for sewing, crochet, knitting, embroidery… all handicrafts and I’ve written about her talent and her award-winning quilting.

One night, watching my sister sit and sew by a bedside lamp I was inspired to write a villanelle…

A Stitch in Time
Mairi Neil (2014)

She sits sewing by dim lamplight
embroidered threads by her side
contented, happy, eyes shining bright.

In the stillness of evening light
needle and thread silently glide,
as she sits sewing by pale moonlight.

Cross stitches pattern small and tight
new techniques taken in her stride
contented, happy, eyes shining bright.

Her creativity in wondrous flight
imagination flows like the tide
as she sits sewing by candlelight.

Machines embraced despite Luddites
mass production becomes her guide
contentment gone, eyes no longer bright

History records seamstresses’ plight
workers stripped of all but pride
many still struggle in shadowed light
exploited, sad, eyes no longer bright.

It was standard practice for women to learn how to sew and for those who did not have to work or scrabble for their living, sitting doing crochet, cross-stitch and embroidery of Bible texts, the alphabet or seasonal motifs considered a genteel pastime.

The exhibition has a lot of interesting historical detail and invaluable research for any would-be writer. Information about waves of migrants bringing new skills, new technology and techniques and of course, fashion fads. Wonderful background fillers that may even inspire short stories or novels.

Stitched with Love

“The first printed patterns for stitching woolwork on canvas were produced in Berlin in the first half of the 19th century. The craft, which became known as Berlin woolwork was promoted at the Great exhibition of 1851 in London just as the middle classes were expanding and more women had the leisure to stitch, and just as new chemical dyes produced never before imagined colours.

Some of the most popular designs were for slipper vamps and uppers. Some, like these, were never attached and have survived for us to admire. A favourite dog stitched with love.”

 

 

Do You Have a Sentimental Yearning To Tell Stories About The Past?

slide of frstival

On Thursday evening, July 4th, my friend Jillian came with me to a fabulous event in the annual Glen Eira Storytelling Festival.

Not only was the event free but they put on a cuppa and delicious choice of biscuits if you turned up before starting time and plenty of us did that!

I no longer work at Godfrey Street in Bentleigh where I used to encourage my students to enter the writing competitions (and in past years a couple got guernseys!) however, my Facebook feed alerts me to Glen Eira Council posts.

They have some great events – the last one I attended was all about fashion of the Regency Period and Jane Austen.

For anyone writing recent family history (Jillian) or stories about or based on their own life (me), Thursday’s event was a great shortcut for historical detail, reminders of what Melbourne’s suburbs used to be like and a way to generate ideas to turn your life into interesting fact or fiction with specific research done by people passionate about the past and with an established following for their writing.

Nostalgia and the ‘Burbs

libby presenting
Libbi Gorr with Eamon Donnelly, David Wadelton and Aron Lewin

Award-winning television and radio broadcaster, Libbi Gorr hosted a panel of contemporary artists and authors with research, websites, and books devoted to cultural observations of our changing suburbs.

Libbi, currently, on ABC Radio Melbourne Weekends was known as Elle McFeast in the 90s. 

Lisbeth Joanne “Libbi” Gorr is an Australian broadcaster working in both TV and radio. Gorr is also an author, voice artist, writer and performer. She first came to prominence with the satirical television character that she created called “Elle McFeast”.

 Wikipedia

With her comedic skills to the fore, Libbi introduced herself by saying she looked up the meaning of Libbi and it was a wallflower, so she chose Elle because in the 90s the model and magazine was associated with long legs and great tits.

She explained that if you wanted to know her job on ABC Radio Melbourne think of her as the Waheed Ali of the weekend except she has a Jewish background, or Miranda Kerr after a feed and Oprah on Crack…

She was a young Jewish girl growing up in Murrumbena, a suburb ‘not quite Caulfield’. Her father originally, from Shepparton but his family escaped the pogroms of Russia. Her grandfather came to Australia at the same time as the Myer family but he worked on the Snowy Hydro scheme.

Sidney Myer’s family got the Sidney Myer Bowl, her father got a fruit bowl – Shepparton.

Libbi’s mother born in Caulfield – a pharmacist like her mother – ‘two generations of druggies’. Her father owned a petrol station, Gorr Automotive so Libbi said, ‘she could sniff cocaine or petrol’…

Libbi’s introduction, placing herself as a local with a connection to place important for the ‘home crowd’ – and it was a crowd – in excess of 100 people packed the room. Not a bad turn out for a winter’s evening.

 

 

The blurb on the invite about ‘burbs said:

As corner milk bars disappear, video stores shut their doors and quirky suburban houses and landscapes give way to gentrification, a group of writers, photographers and artists have set about capturing the quirks and nostalgia of our changing suburban landscapes.

Join us for an evening of cultural observations from the ‘burbs, trips done memory lane and some musings on the very strange phenomenon we call nostalgia.

Why is Nostalgia important?

Before Libbi introduced the panel she mused that Carl Jung answered that question when he studied how childhood experiences are cemented as unconscious memories connecting us to our past.

Our unconscious is the part of the mind containing memories and impulses of which we may not even be aware.

Jung talked about ‘collective unconscious’, a term to represent a form of the unconscious common to mankind as a whole and originating in the inherited structure of the brain.

We all have experienced premonitions – a sense that we know who is on the phone before it rings and we pick it up. We all have had deja vu, that feeling we’ve been somewhere before…

Jungians, almost by definition, tend to get enthused anytime something previously hidden reveals itself when whatever’s been underground finally makes it to the surface.

Carl Jung founded the field of analytical psychology and, along with Sigmund Freud, was responsible for popularizing the idea that a person’s interior life merited not just attention but dedicated exploration — a notion that has since propelled tens of millions of people into psychotherapy.

… Jung, over time, came to see the psyche as an inherently more spiritual and fluid place, an ocean that could be fished for enlightenment and healing.

Whether or not he would have wanted it this way, Jung — who regarded himself as a scientist — is today remembered more as a countercultural icon, a proponent of spirituality outside religion and the ultimate champion of dreamers and seekers everywhere, which has earned him both posthumous respect and posthumous ridicule.

Jung’s ideas laid the foundation for the widely used Myers-Briggs personality test and influenced the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous. His central tenets — the existence of a collective unconscious and the power of archetypes — have seeped into the larger domain of New Age thinking while remaining more at the fringes of mainstream psychology.

The Holy Grail of The Unconscious, Sara Corbett, The New York Times, 16/9/2009

Nostalgia is a sense that connects and cements us all and Libbi wanted the panel and the audience to consider what we get in a community when we share it or live it…

speakers being intriduced Frankston milkbar
Jessie Scott, Eamon Donnelly, David Wadelton, Aron Lewin and Libbi Gorr

The Panel

Jessie Scott, video artist and author of The Coburg Plan. Jessie is doing her PhD – the subject, video stores. She has researched many, interviewed owners and customers.

Eamon Donnelly, artist, photographer and author of The Milk Bars Book. Born in Geelong, the family moved to Melbourne. He began to take photos of places/shops. Many are now defunct and others are disappearing fast. He spent 15 years documenting change before publishing his first softcover book. A cultural artisan, his hardback book was on sale for the evening.

David Wadelton, a contemporary artist, photographer and author of soon to be published, Suburban Baroque.

 Aron Lewin, journalist/writer – recording football and real estate, chronicling progression of Melbourne shops, a Real Estate reporter. He set up the Tales of Bricks And Mortar website https://talesofbrickandmortar.com/author/alewin1/ after collecting stories about longstanding shops, restaurants and cafes across Melbourne.

Projected in the background were slides taken by the panel and whenever a familiar shop appeared, a murmur of recognition rippled through the audience.

I nudged Jillian when a picture came up of a milk bar in Edithvale and one in Seaford – several of my students have mentioned these shops in their stories.

Edithvale milkbar in background

David Wadelton – Documenting Transition

Abandoned shops, shops replaced with apartments, empty blocks… places symbolising change and loss all interest David. Change over time affects not just buildings when factories are replaced by apartments, shops on a local strip disappear or are replaced by a shopping centre…

He was fascinated by how different postwar migrant housing was compared to traditional Aussie houses. Old weatherboard home extensions added a top storey of brick to make houses look more European. The decor and colour schemes inside were soft furnishings and souvenirs from ‘the old country’.

He has photographed milk bars, newsagents, fish and chip shops… Lightbox signs: ‘sweets and smokes’ in Footscray; an adult ‘newsboy’ in Northcote,  small Barbershops in business 50+ years with souvenirs of their European homeland and their adopted homeland on the walls and counters.

He has a picture of Thornbury Espresso slide, Hattams clothes shop still with a sign ‘we take bankcard’…

David has a following and audience on Flicker, Instagram, and Google’s YouTube – he has made the transition from traditional print to digital.

speakers david and Aaron

While David was talking I thought about the milkbar that used to be at the end of Albert Street Mordialloc before several adjacent shops were demolished and turned into an ugly block of flats.

Several people tried to make a go of the business, impacted by an expanded Safeway supermarket and a new Jewels Supermarket built in Main Street. An elderly couple ran the milkbar in 1984 when John and I moved into Albert Street.

It was not long before they retired and it was bought by a man who owned another shop in Warren Road. He installed his son and a mate to run the shop before a retired army officer, originally from Wales became the last manager.

Albert Street changed dramatically in the early 90s – a petrol station/garage demolished for a nursing home, washing machine repair shop transformed into a hairdressing salon and the milk bar and mini hardware shop demolished for a block of flats. Several stand-alone houses made way for units.

Aron Lewin – Writing Poems About People and Places

Aron saw a picket fence shop and wondered who would start a shop like that, how long would it last – and it inspired a poem about why and how… and he got an idea for a website.

He went to interview the owners but they were not interested. However,  from there he looked at other small business owners in the area, shops in a strip – proprietors all knew each other with most shops around 40 and 50 years. In fact, the owners were local identities.

He focused on ones that stayed in the same place for years because he wanted to capture their stories before businesses closed and disappeared as they will…

He was fascinated by what motivated these business owners, why did they choose their particular trade/product/lifestyle? What were their challenges, successes, failures? How did they see themselves in relation to the community?

He took photos with his mobile, then teamed with a proper photographer. He aimed to interview ten people but now has fifty stories!

From a small beginning, his enthusiasm and passion to record the stories and details of old shops across Melbourne propelled and grew into a big project. It’s all about connections and relationships with a local community – stories about the butcher, the baker, the barber… recorded before the people and places disappear.

A slide of Franks Bakery, Elsternwick flashed onto the screen eliciting lots of noises of recognition from the audience and Libbi. 

‘Aw, Frank, lovely man – been there forever.’

Aron said, ‘ I saw a sign couple of days ago. It’s closing.’

‘Oh, no!’ gasped Libbi, ‘is this true? Does anyone know?’ she asked the audience.

There were murmurings and Libbi googled to check if there was anything on the Bakery website – as did others on the panel and in the audience!

are they googling the Elsternwick bakery closure?
everyone checking Google?

Jessie Scott – Extracting meaning From Unloved & Neglected Sites

A video artist/photographer, Jessie’s PhD is about Video Stores. She grew up in Moonee Ponds and the western suburbs. So many small places are disappearing, the renowned Olympic Donut place is gone and street after street subjected to gentrification with the real estate boom.

At university, she rediscovered video shops when she was studying video art and did an assignment, her Miraculous Ribbon Project. Slides of Colac Video and Network Video shops that existed then but those stores are either closed and empty or gone now.

No longer the  ‘Home Entertainment Experts’.

A Video Ezy shop was her local store. She got a text message to say it was closing and having a ‘fire sale’. That moment was when she realised how painful nostalgia felt because part of her childhood disappeared when that store closed.

People congregated to discuss, gossip, share news in the video stores. Staff would point out good movies – there’d be discussions, it was a social and family place.

Video Stores were often the first point of contact with a broader culture for people.  Nowadays with the explosion of the Internet, there is access to whatever you want but when she was growing up it was a family outing to choose your entertainment for the weekend.

Jessie’s talk reminded me of the two video shops we had in Mordialloc. Most of the time, John took the girls to choose their movies – $5 for the latest release (if they were lucky), or more likely a selection of the weekly $2 ones. (I’m talking ’90s.)

Captain Beaky’s store was their favourite and the owner nicknamed the girls ‘the horror queens’ because they loved hiring the latest horror movies – Buffy the Vampire Slayer popular!

The man in the other store on the opposite side of Main Street was nice and friendly too. Just as well because when we returned from a holiday once, the friend looking after our house and dog forgot to return the videos and left them where Goldie decided to treat them as toys she disliked.

When I offered to pay for replacements, the Video guy just laughed and said not to bother because accidents happen. Obviously, a dog lover or no one else had our taste in videos.

speakers Jesse and Eamon

Eamon Donnelly – The Milkbar Man

He was born 1981 in Geelong, his happy memories as a child are of copper coins in his back pocket as he rode his bike or walked to the milkbar to buy some lollies or ice cream.

His favourite milkbar run by the Hawkings Family.

Milkbars had colour, warmth, sounds and smells – sweet aromas – lollies, ice creams, and the owners knew everyone. They also sold cigarettes and often newspapers.

He is nostalgic for the 1980s. In the 1990s, his parents sold their renovated home and moved to Melbourne suburbia. Their new suburb did not have nearby milkbar but a golf club as a substitute.

Eamon went to university and studied graphic design and art. He returned to Geelong to take photos of his old family home and didn’t recognise the area: the family home altered, several milk bars gone – some had old signage left, others the building vanished.

He started to record Geelong first, then Melbourne – so many small businesses closing but iconic brands and typography remembered by lots of people.

Milkbars made milkshakes and spiders – many also provided school lunches being a nearby tuck shop (one even called the milkbar that).

He got a story in The Age about his first book – a soft cover book. Jenny, the daughter of one of the milkbar owners – the Hawkings – Googled him and got in touch. She loved the photographs and they corresponded.

He experienced a ‘Full Circle Moment’ – he was invited to meet the family and the Hawkings remembered the Donnellys. They met and had dinner and reminisced and discovered so many incidents were their life or the life of family members and friends crossed.

Eamon started to interview families because lots of people got in touch after the first book came out and he saw the need to save their stories.

David listening to audience member

Audience Response confirmed we love to indulge in Nostalgia

A young woman introduced herself as Phyllis.  She grew up in a milkbar and her father is in Eamon’s book.

She got emotional and apologised. Her dad passed away two years ago so the book is a treasure, ‘ I come from a Greek background, Dad was Greek.’

Libbi asked how she managed not to gorge on lollies and Phyllis laughed. ‘Dad was Greek, he said, if you steal lollies, I’ll cut your hands off, and I believed him!’

Phyllis then went on to say how much she admired her father and others like him who had little or no English when they arrived in Australia yet still ran a business.

How did they do it? Her father couldn’t speak enough English to learn or remember customer’s names but called them by descriptions like ‘giraffe lady’ (a woman who was really tall). He remembered customers that way.

She believes the milkbar building is still there in Elsternwick but now an Indian restaurant or perhaps a dodgy hamburger place!

Eamon remembered Phyllis’s dad and said there is a beautiful black and white photo of him behind the counter in his shop. He remembered how he was always smiling when he greeted customers.

A man in the audience shared a story too.

His uncle had a milkbar in Swanston Street in Melbourne city just before Bourke Street. It was a cafe too and ‘served Aussie tucker: bacon and eggs and chips.’

He used to help his uncle during holidays by selling toffee apples.

His parents had a milkbar in Huntingdale Road near Huntingdale Railway Station and in the 1960s, it was one of the busiest milkbars in Melbourne.

He ran the milkbar at 15 years old because his father got ill. They made sandwiches for nearby factories which proliferated at that time in Huntingdale. They opened from 6am – 10 pm but got a sleep-in at weekends and opened at 8.00am.

Because of some quirk in the law, they couldn’t sell groceries after 5.00pm but bribed the inspectors.  They’d board up shop and after the inspection open up again. The inspectors went away with a carton of cigarettes or large salami sausage or something similar. They also sold sly grog – brandy – an inherited side of the business from previous owners.

He remembered they sold sanitary pads, which were wrapped in brown paper in those days. Ladies would come into the shop and ask to be served by his mother. She would come and duly serve them but yell to him, ‘Get a packet of pads for the lady.’ 

Local shops provided entertainment, produce and local news!

David has been chronicling architecture of the 70s 80s 90s. Other buildings, as well as shops and milkbars, fascinated by their nostalgic and iconic status. 

His focus on the broader conspicuous change – they were on every street corner, they personify and represent change on a broader scale – no room for family businesses anymore.

Regarding the houses of migrants of that era with taste-defying interiors, garish colour schemes, eccentricity and clash of ideas – this is vanishing. Everything homogenised today, everything the same – colour schemes beige and shades of beige!

We are seeing a homogenising of culture, tastes have radically changed. He is just documenting but sees so much slipping away. His mission to record a way of life vaporising before our own eyes.

What contributes to the change?

  • Employment laws have an impact:

Contracts, transient and casual employees, staff constantly changing in franchise stores like 7/11 so no attachment to customers, no special relationship like with milkbars and small family businesses.

  • No sentimentality with 7/11 and similar franchises

Convenience stores have prepackaged mixed lollies – no choosing your own,’ one of these, two of them…’ The signage generic, the atmosphere different.

You remember the place and the people in a family business, you are cemented to it even if an employee.

You chat and value the conversations, reflect on relationships that extend beyond the shop – perhaps go to school with children, attend the same church… the shop an extension of that community.

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one of David’s photographs, National Gallery exhibition

Do relationships stay in the shop or do they exist and extend beyond that boundary?

Eamon said the Hawking Family became friends and a connection developed with the project but people do get displaced.

Jessie said one of the video store owners she interviewed was so well-liked by his customers that some volunteered to keep the store open while he went out cleaning to earn enough to keep the store afloat. 

Unfortunately, the store eventually had to close. Many people say they regret stores closing and miss them after they have gone but don’t patronise them to keep them viable.

Another audience member volunteered her story. She lived and worked in a local shopping strip and most of the business owners were Holocaust survivors and WW2 migrants.

They frequented shops where they could be understood, where people spoke their language and knew their culture – Jewish shops, Romanian, Polish, Scottish.

Everyone knew each other – it was a community for new migrants.

She worked in a milkbar in Malvern in the 70s, so did her sisters.  The downside was she couldn’t ‘buy cigs on the sly’ because they knew her parents.

She recalled how milkbars were referred to by their stock: a Peter’s milkbar, a Streets’ milkbar even one referred to as the weird guy you wouldn’t visit – especially on your own!

It was a night for confessions.

A man in the audience said he attended Mt Scopus College and with the help of milkbar in Armadale, he started a profitable enterprise.

He and his mates bought lollies at one price and then sold them for an inflated price from his school locker. He raised money for bands like Sky Hooks to visit and play at lunchtime concerts at school. Chocolate buttons and snakes were the most popular lollies!

When Libbi asked did Netflix and other digital technology kill video and going to the movies there was a muted response.

A man suggested that it is a change in culture and we are distancing ourselves from our neighbours so don’t blame technology because we take it up – it is a choice.

Years ago, on hot nights people sat in front gardens or on verandahs and talked to each other. Pre-television they went for walks and talked to each other.

Fences have become increasingly higher built between properties. First tall fences then security gates, even on unremarkable houses that would not be immediate targets for thieves.

A woman said that times may be changing again because of rules in some of the new estates in places like Pakenham, no front fences are allowed and side fences must be a certain height. Different councils have different rules.

Libbi asked:

DO YOU KNOW YOUR NEIGHBOURS?

Sadly, many people don’t know their neighbours citing new development, ageing and the movement and shifting of the population as reasons.

A woman who grew up behind a fruit shop said someone should do a story on the demise and change of fruit shops.

Libbi asked if she was a Cincotta and the woman said, yes. Her family owned businesses in East Malvern, Murrumbeena and Hughesdale.

Fruit shops have been absorbed into supermarkets and the trade absorbed by multi-nationals and the changing trends like organic fruit and vegetables – all big business nowadays.

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Transformations 1992 by Julie Begg – ceramic art in foyer Glen Eira town hall

Has Cafe Culture replaced the Milkbar’s Role?

There is a strong cafe culture today and it is a parallel culture to the old milkbars with regular customers. The cafes are often on street corners, many developed from converted milk bars.

They are a modern social hub. For example, in Northcote, the milkbar on the corner is now a cafe – it’s about loyalty.

An Inkerman Street milkbar taken over by a cafe. They kept the name and signage, use old fashioned china crockery – a contributor to future nostalgia.

In milkbars, relationships were built and they were a meeting place for people in the neighbourhood – many cafes fulfil a similar role – providing familiarity and friendship.

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“Ourselves when young” bronze by Ailsa O’Connor  in foyer Glen Eira Town Hall

Glen Eira Town Hall

The evening had to end but people were reluctant to leave and as Libbi thanked the panels and organisers she pointed out how important a community hub is to keep the spirit of community alive and to help people belong and feel part of a place.

These events Glen Eira put on don’t cost a lot, you feel comfortable, you’ve been with people and interacted in a meaningful way,  and because it is local there is little or no travelling time…

We were all given a paper bag of mixed lollies on the way out … the reminiscing, the discussion, the relaxing warmth …

The evening proved we do yearn to share stories of the past and Nostalgia and the ‘Burbs a great success!

Well done Glen Eira Council!

If you have a story of a milk bar or other local business please share it – I have a list of stories I can write or add detail to ones already written to include milkbars:

  • I tasted my first Choc Wedge at a milk bar in Croydon 1962
  • My first trip alone on a bicycle was to the local milk bar in Croydon 1963

 

 

Mr Bailey’s Minder -a play about growing old disgracefully, being disgracefully old… and something much deeper!

noticeboard for play

On Saturday, I went to the matinee session of the Mordialloc Theatre Company’s latest play at the Shirley Burke Theatre, Parkdale.

My theatre buddy, Lisa cancelled because of ill-health but I am glad I didn’t let that or the wintry weather, which caused sudden and severe squalls, to convince me to stay at home in the warmth – although it was tempting!

Now I’m ‘retired’ it is easier to stay at home, especially in winter and by the demographics I’ve observed who support the MTC and the smattering of empty seats on Saturday, the cold weather and perhaps the lethargy of age took its toll, which is a pity.

The play was enjoyable, the ambience in the theatre welcoming, and you get free coffee/tea and biscuits at the interval.

In fact, if so inclined you can buy a glass of wine or sherry before the play starts. Saturday definitely, chilly so I’m not surprised many people took that option.

See this play and support your local theatre

Mr Bailey’s Minder is on until the end of the week!

theatre ticket

Of the three productions I’ve seen this year, this definitely gets a thumbs up from me and considering the response of the audience, others also agree.

  • Maybe it is because this is the first one this year by an Australian playwright and so the actors didn’t have fake American or Canadian accents.
  • Maybe it’s because I can relate more to the themes which are not only current and relevant but emotionally engaging.
  • Maybe it’s because of the actors – apart from a bit of nervousness at the beginning, their interactions were believable and entertaining.

This is the promo blurb:


blurb for play

However, discussing the play at the interval with one of the volunteers another lady joined the conversation and when I said the subject matter was interesting and topical she said, ‘Ah yes, elder abuse.’

A reflection perhaps because we are in the middle of a Royal Commission into how we treat people in Aged Care and there are stories galore about abuse in the media.

But Mr Bailey’s Minder is much more than a story about someone growing old and being mistreated or fearing mistreatment.

All the major characters in the play have fears and emotional scars – not just Mr Bailey.

We are all ageing or know someone who is and if we live long enough must face declining health and death.

We all have or will have a life to reflect on with good and bad decisions, successful or unsuccessful relationships, haunting memories of the warm glow kind or filled with regret.

Many of us have had experience with someone in the family coping with alcoholism and/or dementia and family estrangement is common too.

The play mines a rich field of life experiences.

Therese, as the title suggests, is the ‘Minder’ or carer, and frequently, takes centre stage. Her story, one of a need to belong and be valued – and to value herself – a contrast to Leo’s life of celebrity status where being a ‘famous artist’ resulted in Leo overvaluing himself! (as others did too!)

scenes from play 2

Leo Bailey (Eric Hayes) is a drunken ‘has-been’ artist suffering from decades of alcohol abuse and self-indulgent misbehaviour. He’s offended, hurt or neglected friends, several ex-wives and all but one of his children. His past is confronting – what he can remember of it, or how he remembers it, which varies depending on his mood or awareness.

Now he is facing death – and he is astute enough to know it will probably be alone.  He must also cope with the realisation that he’s lost some of his artistic abilities yet boasts how valuable his signature still is – even on a blank piece of paper (be intrigued).

Only his daughter, Margo (Juliet Hayday) continues to visit him and manage his affairs, despite being subjected to a barrage of abuse every time she steps into Leo’s home.

Margo has remained dutiful although she can’t escape the bitterness of unhappy memories of childhood spoilt by her celebrity father’s behaviour.

In the opening scene, the much-maligned Margo meets Therese (Julia Landberg), a young woman desperate for work and the latest in a long list of Leo Bailey’s minders.

We learn how ill Leo is, about his obnoxious behaviour, plus how dementia has heightened his disagreeableness.

Margo who works in investment banking does not ‘pull any punches’ regarding her father. In fact, she repeats the well-worn cliches –

  • Old people abandoned in nursing homes must look no further than their own past behaviour.
  • Abusive drunks reveal their true self – it’s never just the drink talking.
  • Adults must take responsibility for their behaviour whether they’re a celebrity or not

Therese, cagey about her past, is worried Margo will check her references. She doesn’t expect to get the job, yet in her desperation behaves alternately, belligerent and defensive. She is feisty and a survivor.

Leo comes downstairs, he is at his alcohol-sodden best, insulting Margo and Therese and accusing them of wanting to take his home and independence.

Disagreeable is an understatement.

(Interestingly, “Leo’s” lines or actions alternated between outrageous, wily astuteness and downright insulting, but a group in the audience loudly appreciated Eric’s performance – indicative that the actor who is a Life member of MTC has a following!)

The final major player to add to the emotionally scarred cast appears later.

Karl (Aaron Townley) a tradie who comes to remove a mural and repair a wall. His life is as difficult and broken as the others. He’s paying off a debt caused by an ex-business partner and recovering from a marriage breakdown caused by same debt.

Needy and lonely,  Karl continues to visit to do odd jobs after establishing a friendship with Leo and Therese who manages to get her charge to give up drinking and begin to make amends to those he has mistreated by writing letters of apology. They even start going out and visiting parks and museums.

Of course, there are sub-plots and a minor character (also played by Aaron) who will make your blood boil and an all-important twist that good drama provides.

The necessary conflict to keep an audience interested is delivered – with a couple of realistic physical scenes, which had me worried because Eric wasn’t using make-up to age!

Each character also revealed an inner conflict through actions or dialogue at some stage.

theatre program

The Playwright, Debra Oswald. 

Wikipedia tells us that Debra Oswald is a screenwriter, playwright and fiction author. She was the co-creator and head writer for series 1-5 of the award-winning Channel Ten series Offspring

Mr Bailey’s Minder and The Peach Season both premiered at Griffin Theatre Company. Mr Bailey’s Minder toured nationally in 2006 and premiered in the United States in 2008 at The Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. 

When it was first released, a review said, the play

grapples with how much latitude we’re prepared to give artists we consider to be blessed with some kind of genius. It also explores the separate journeys of three individuals committed to creating a place where they can belong.

The play may also promote discussion about past behaviour and caring for ageing parents whether they were celebrities or not.

The worship of celebrity, of course, seems to have intensified in recent years. A prime example is in the acting profession where TV creates celebrities frequently, with actors who study the craft and perform on stage often overlooked or not given the recognition, they may deserve.

In this social media age celebrities flourish, however, in the future they may pay the price for their behaviour much earlier or burn out quicker.

The publicity social media gives that makes it easier to make celebrity status, also makes it easier to punish or shatter a celebrity. And with the Internet – everything is on record whether it has been edited, doctored, embellished, made up…

Plus we have an ageing population. Debra’s play will remain topical and relevant for some time.

Stagecraft and Set Design

scene from play 1

The set design and construction depicting Bailey’s disintegrating home above Sydney Harbour is eye-catching and memorable. Martin Gibbs, the Director and set designer is to be congratulated.

The various scene changes facilitated seamlessly by three exits – a door through to a kitchenette, the ‘front’ door and a staircase that led to the bedrooms and much-mentioned bathroom. The music accompanying each scene change setting the relevant mood and the lighting used to great effect to signal the passing of time and a new day.

So, add a bit of spice or emotional angst to your day and catch a session of Mr Bailey’s Minder you won’t be disappointed and it will do what all good art does – make you confront various aspects of the human condition – especially your own.

PS

A note of caution – if like me, you have experienced a loved one whose personality changed because of dementia, ageing, or a combination of both, or have experienced family estrangement, make sure you have a tissue in your pocket… you never know what triggers an emotional moment… this play just might hit the spot.

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To Turn Your Life Into Fiction – Start at Your Local Library

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Last night I attended an author event at Sandringham Library with my good friend, Lisa Hill who is a fellow bibliophile, blogger and writer. Well-respected and fiercely independent, please check Lisa’s reviews of any of the books mentioned in this post.

I’m fortunate she keeps me in the loop about local events and on a cold, dark winter night gave me a lift in her comfortable car!

An eminent book reviewer with an award-winning blog, Lisa concentrates on Australian and New Zealand literature but also reviews an impressive range of international writers, including many translations not necessarily widely distributed.

When she heard about this event in Bayside she let me know especially since I taught  Life Stories & Legacies for several years.

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This event showcased three authors discussing how they used events from life in their novels so how apt to have a bust of Australian writer, Alan Marshall OBE outside. Alan hailed from the nearby suburb of Black Rock.

Alan’s most famous novel I Can Jump Puddles, which was on the school curriculum for years and made into a mini-series on TV, was based on his childhood fight to recover from Polio.

When I came to Australia in 1962, I think Alan Marshall was an author everyone knew and is an excellent example of turning real-life events into novels.

Library renovations are scheduled and this was the last public event before they begin so the 72 in attendance were indeed fortunate.  Before Vivienne, the Customer Service Co-ordinator for Bayside introduced the guest panel, she confided that she was celebrating her 21st Anniversary with the library – so two memorable milestones for the evening.

Vivienne also plugged the library’s campaign to promote its various services and events around the theme Libraries Change Lives, but my guess is she was preaching to the converted!

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Local author, Claire Halliday was the emcee  and in the spotlight were authors

  • Eleni Hale
  • John Tesarsch
  • Lee Kofman

Eleni was asked about the parts of her own life she mined to write her debut YA novel Stone Girl. She admitted to always wanting to write but before she could write other stories she had to write about her childhood in State Government care first.

It was a story hammering inside her to be written although she had ‘redacted being a ward of the state from her life story.’

She had been a university student, a journalist, fiancee, wife and mother but found relief in being able to write about a part of her early life never mentioned.

She released her muse and making the story fiction gave her the freedom to write without worrying about hurting others.

There are 40,000 children in the care system and her story is a compilation of those stories. Her novel a vehicle to open up and talk about her past. She listened to a lot of Metallica and similar music and kept writing!

The writing itself private and personal but became confronting when published and she faced the prospect of the publicity and marketing treadmill because as Claire suggested, journalists love a book where the author can be pressured to share what parts are true.

Eleni, a journalist herself, agreed the ‘real life experience’ is a bigger story than the novel if you expose yourself like she did, so she compiled a list of five talking points to be avoided!

The old me was about growing up in an Australian orphanage,’ said Eleni, ‘and I wore that like a cape.’

She still feels separate from the character because the media have been reasonable and looked at the actual issue she wanted to spotlight – the experience of kids in care.

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Eleni holding her novel Stone Girl

Embellishment versus Truth?

Eleni said that in the beginning, her character Sophie is twelve and has lost her mum and ends up a Ward of the State. She meets Milo on the street and he is a cool dude she is attracted to but ends up trapped in his home.

Eleni shared a true story ‘not shared publicly before.

An incident in her own life was the inspiration for the Milo scene. She was fourteen or fifteen and in care. They were encouraged to go out during the day and one day she met a Jamaican DJ who fitted the description of Milo. She ended up scared and locked in his house. The Milo scene in the book has the essence of that real-life event.

Why didn’t she smash a window?

She recalls being groggy so he must have put something in her food or drink and yet she was street smart.

Work In Progress

In Eleni’s new book, a crime thriller and still a work in progress, she will tackle a theme of ‘classism’ and the poverty it creates in Australia.

After Stone Girl was published she was contacted by many people wanting to share their stories. She gathered more knowledge and ideas and became aware of how many people are ashamed to admit they were in care or were poor and had traumatic experiences. There are many stories to be told!

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Claire Halliday introducing Lee, John and Eleni

Claire then focused on John who is a barrister in Melbourne.

He was asked if he used his clients’ stories, particularly since the theme of his book The Last Will and Testament of Henry Hoffman was an estate issue. A daughter finds a will after her father’s untimely death and wonders who is the mystery woman mentioned.

John declared that the intersection of family and money is toxic, which is why as a lawyer, he avoids estate work but it is a rich vein for storytellers.

He doesn’t directly poach client stories because that would be unethical, however, his novel has elements of autobiography. It is about a father and daughter, the relationship between parents and children, and how trauma resonates through generations.

Claire mentioned that the character Sarah is a concert pianist who has to quit music as a career. Did John draw on his experience as a cellist with a stellar career who had to quit?

John explained that when he was in Vienna the skin on his hands began to peel off and he discovered he was allergic to the dark rosin applied to the cello bow. He had to give up playing an instrument he loved.

However, his character, Sarah gave up playing because of stage fright and they both coped with the initial grief differently. He reinvented himself as a lawyer and now a writer believing ‘when one door closes another opens‘ whereas his character just got stuck.

John believes writing fiction is all about imagination and he never runs out of ideas – and hopefully, they will always be good ideas. His ‘compost heap of a mind‘ searches for a response – a counterfactual experience – and he will not worry about running out of experiences to fuel ideas to write about.

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Lee Kofman and John Tesarsch

Balancing Historical Facts, Real Life & Fiction?

Dinner With the Dissidents, John’s novel set in 1971 Moscow has an aspiring author as the main character. An Australian publisher offers him a book deal if he’ll spy on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

John drew on his experience trying to get his first manuscript published to the extent he empathised and appreciated the writer’s desire to be published.

It is daunting to write a novel that sits well with historical facts. He read lots of Russian novels and researched for months about that time in history before coming to the realisation that the human condition is universal. The emotions a character reveals the same regardless of ethnicity.

For his work in progress, John is having a change of pace and genre. He is writing a romantic comedy involving an Elvis impersonator – and he has been that! This drew laughter from the audience, especially when he confessed he may use a pseudonym!

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Lee Kofman is a memoirist and memoir teacher and talked about applying an evocative twist to real-life writing. She admitted to being a prolific confessional writer in three languages.

In the 90s, when she started to write in her style, there was no real creative non-fiction but she fell in love with the memoir genre, which is a slice of your life – not all autobiography.

She found the trick was to examine the difference between herself now and younger self. Look at younger self from a distance, try not to be too attached to current emotions and thoughts – look at younger self, be the cold observer. Ask what are the emotions younger self feel? Why did events happen to cause those feelings? Reveal something that happened intimately, yet do it overtly.

It is confronting to reveal something, or a life that you once hid (she referred to Eleni’s expose of her life as a State Ward) and Lee said she experienced that when writing Imperfect about her body scars.

The balances between what to include or omit difficult to attain. She found Helen Garner a good model as a writer when she advised ‘keep to your own truth and story’. Lee followed this advice when she wrote Dangerous Bride. She stuck to writing her own feelings and emotions and didn’t run down her ex just to make him look bad. It was an intimate expose of a marriage breakdown but it remained her story.

She also admires novelist Robert Dessaix.

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Lee believes successful writing is all in the voice and how you tell your story. One of Helen Garner’s books begins with a description of ordinary people having breakfast yet you keep reading.

It is how you write your voice. Keep it true and natural and your voice will be authentic.

Lee curated/edited an anthology of personal essays, SPLIT. All the contributors were told the stories had to be about endings. Personal essays are a meshing of real life and to be successful

  • the stakes must be high,
  • there must be conflict,
  • a resolution or change in the character
  • or if no resolution, show acceptance of there being no change.

Therefore, in SPLIT, the stories had to be dramatic endings, endings that changed the writer. Good essays include snippets of dialogue and colour to bring the words to life.

John said he had been asked to write a personal essay but enjoys fiction writing. Eleni finds writing personal essays confronting and would be worried about who she’ll affect so prefers hiding behind characters.

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The Editing Process – Writing For Readers or Yourself?

Eleni advised ignoring who will be reading your story and just write and worry about readership later when editing. Write first, think about publishing later; worrying about readers will block your writing flow.

She put Metallica on and just wrote furiously, not worrying about how many words or how they came out on the page.

To be a writer you must read, read and read. Then write, write, write and have tenacity without beating yourself up about how good or bad your work is.

She wrote four drafts of her 80,000-word novel and threw the first three out!

She is with Penguin and they didn’t change anything of the final draft. She only needed a line edit, not a structural edit. However, as a journalist with The Herald Sun, she is not a novice writer.

John is with Affirm publishers, who won publisher of the year. Lee is also with them as well as another publisher. They both agreed you are fortunate if you receive a structural edit. It is wonderful to get attention and good editing, many publishers don’t offer that today.

To have an independent outsider check your work is a valuable and rewarding process for a writer.

Regarding the writing process, Lee told the story of a suicidal Russian poet who left a note for his mother, sister and lover – ‘I don’t recommend it!’ She said she feels like that about memoir!

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How Important is Having Distance Between an Event and Writing About It?

A member of the audience noted the panel had all mentioned having distance between a life event/experience and writing about it – whether that was emotional, time, or relocation of place.

John said that with his music experience, it was a long time ago and he had a sense of perspective about his allergy and his reaction to not being able to play anymore. He believed having that distance adds depth to your writing but he stressed he writes fiction, it is not him but his character who is doing the experiencing. Characters must have their own life.

Eleni said it was about time – she went from someone who didn’t have a voice and became a Herald Sun journalist. But she needed time to write about when she didn’t have a voice.

For Lee, it took twenty years before she was able to write about broken relationships and her marriage.

When Eleni was asked if there was a conflict between what she experienced and how much the reader must know to understand and connect with the story, she said she had woven the story around other kids’ stories and hoped people would see and understand the telling.

She recalled her writing teacher at university saying that writing was like taking a photograph, don’t clutter it up. Good writing is picking what needs to be in the story.

Eleni tried to write an autobiography but couldn’t. Writing as fiction she had to show not tell, although it was important to be truthful. She walked in the footsteps of those who suffered plus showed the bureaucracy, social workers, the homes the kids moved around in and the other kids met along the way.

She hoped readers would see and understand.

John was asked if he thought there was a dearth of political novels in Australia and why? His novel Dinner With Dissidents set in the 1970s Russia and was about surveillance etc but considering recent events in Australia where the Australian Federal Police raided the ABC HQ in Sydney and a News Corp journalist’s home, there is obviously, fodder for political novels.

John suspects it will change here. Although we have had a relatively benign political climate, the whole apparatus of society is changing because of technology and the level of surveillance is different compared to a decade ago.

Another question from the audience raised the crime genre as a vehicle for social realism and asked Eleni if this is why she chose to write another issue based book.

The audience member referred to Wendy Squires article in The Age after the young woman Courtney Herron was murdered in Royal Park.  Wendy revealed she had been homeless and could empathise with the feeling of shame and stigma attached to people like Courtney.

Eleni agreed this was a great example of a writer using their voice and real-life experience to draw attention to an important social reality.

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Do You Write For Self or for Readers?

An audience member told the panel he was recently sent three novels to review. Two were awful. The third he found better because the writer produced a book where scenes came alive as if watching a movie.

Did the panel consider their readers?

Eleni said the first draft of her novel was awful and it would have been a punishment if someone was required to read it! She threw it out.

She believed you must weave description through the characters’ actions and dialogue. Excellent writing is visual.

John is motivated by the joy of the writing process. When he is in the writing zone he feels alive and vivid and doesn’t think about anything else but the story and moving it along. His publisher and agent can figure out the readership. He doesn’t think about what readers will take from his novels.

Lee writes for herself. She wants to answer questions and writes for selfish reasons but redrafts all the time. The last book she was very mindful of the readers.

There was a happy buzz when the panel concluded and a beeline for the table with books for sale. Others queued to talk with the authors.

The organisers can pat themselves on the back for a successful evening.

How lucky we are to have authors willing to sit in a suburban library on a cold winter’s evening and generously share their time, skills and writing tips.

Now to put some of that expert encouragement and inspiration into practice!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Homegrown Stories A Success for Kingston Arts

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Now officially an aged pensioner and semi-retired from teaching creative writing, I made a promise to attend more local activities to feed my soul and keep engaged with other creative arts.

An easy promise kept because my friend, Lisa encouraged me to take out a yearly membership and go with her to see plays at Shirley Burke Theatre in Parkdale. The offerings have been mixed but I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Underground’ and wrote a review which you can read here.

I usually write a post if I enjoy something or it piques my interest. I’m not an experienced reviewer with any particular expertise but in the words of many an armchair critic “I know what I like!”

And I liked the sound of Six Moments In Kingston – Bus Tour.

Six Moments in Kingston is a public art bus tour that celebrates Kingston’s rich history. Responding to six infamous local stories, this ambitious public art commission features performances, music, street parades, broadcasts, sculpture and videos sited around Kingston. Audiences board a public art bus to tour secret locations where each story occurred…

Lisa didn’t want to go, so I booked for Sunday, May 19 but almost reneged because of the late night watching the depressing results of the Federal Election.

However, I am glad I made the effort because it was a fantastic couple of hours and lifted my spirits!

I even met up with some friends who were ‘a blast from the past’ and so returned home in a buoyant, jovial mood.

Thank you Kingston Arts!

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The event was advertised as the biggest public art program in Kingston and judging by the full buses and well-organised and resourced tour (repeated over two weekends so you still have a chance to book!) the logistics and potential for hiccups must have had the organisers biting their nails.

But the tour is seamless and heaps of fun from the starting point at the front of Kingston Arts Centre to the end, by the tent installation in the carpark of the centre.

Curators David Cross and Cameron Bishop, together with a stellar group of contemporary artists, lead SIX MOMENTS IN KINGSTON, a dynamic series of six public artworks set in sites around Kingston.

Each artwork responds to an infamous local story, including the mysterious disappearance of aviator Fred Valentich in 1978, following his sighting of a UFO; a celebration of globally successful Parkdale rocker Rick Springfield’s worldwide hit ‘Jessie’s Girl’; Phil Carman’s infamous head-butting incident at Moorabbin Oval, and the story of Julie Cooper, Moorabbin’s first female councillor and Mayor. And much more!

Hop on board a magical mystery bus tour to visit six delightful artworks in secret locations around Kingston! Each tour lasts under two hours. The bus tour features local stories told by legendary Australian actors, Michael Caton (The Castle) and Kate Fitzpatrick.

Six Moments – Six memorable Stories

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While we waited for the bus two young women sat in a tent erected in the forecourt. This tent, linked to the installation in the Kingston Arts Car Park (both by artist Steve Rhall) and the story of the occupants told in depth when we were on the bus.

The installations, inspired by an event in 1982, honour Moorabbin’s protest histories. At this site, two homeless schoolgirls set-up camp outside the town hall to proclaim what should be a fundamental right to all people – shelter.

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Image credit: Silent Protest, archived by the Kingston Historical Society, source unknown.

It links to the work by artist Spiros Panigirakis, which refers to the removal of the historic ‘Grange’ homestead built on Kulin Nation land further down the road on Nepean Highway.

Whilst its future contested, the homestead became a squatter’s residence and at one stage it was suggested before its demolition, that it could become a women’s refuge or a hostel for the homeless.

However, the battle with developers was lost (sound familiar?) in 1983 and the Moorabbin Police Station was built and homelessness replaced in the news by other issues.

Story One – the Fundamental Right To Shelter – and to Protest

The bus drove us past the police station and as the story of ‘The Grange’ unfolded we learnt a little about the artist Spiros, his application to ‘paint the story of Moorabbin’s development on a purpose-built wall’ and the process of getting a Heritage Overlay.

spiros' house and original wall
Image supplied by Spiros Panigirakis of the potential site for redevelopment

This project reflects on the divisive and contentious debates led by a number of interest groups – arts, theatre, youth groups, accommodation services and commercial enterprises – around the restoration of The Grange, a prominent settler homestead built in 1856.

Redeveloped in 1977, the Moorabbin Police Station now occupies the old Grange site.

The project considers the site, the edifice of the Moorabbin Police Station and the suburban home of Tony and Dimitra Panigirakis in Moorabbin. It explores the notion of redevelopment through a series of fictional redevelopment proposals for the current site of the Moorabbin Police Station.

Using planning documents, real-estate hoardings and other public platforms that announce proposed redevelopment plans, heritage issues and planning approvals, a series of developer’s hoardings explore the notion of who controls redevelopment.

Working with Kingston Council landscape architects and urban planners, as well as his parents iconic Moorabbin home, Panigirakis looks at the ways municipal bureaucracy mediates redevelopment ideas and architectural propositions.

The work culminates in a series of installations across Moorabbin, and the production of an artist’s book that incorporates administrative and visual documentation surrounding the journey of the project.

As someone who doesn’t drive, my visits to Moorabbin are via public transport therefore many parts of the area I’d never seen before. It was fascinating and enlightening.

There were examples of a variety of architectural styles and I assume, it is the heritage overlay that has protected neighbourhood character of some of the streets and prevented Hilston Grove’s transformation into a ‘pigeon coop city’ with hastily (and in many cases shoddily) built apartments that has afflicted much of Kingston.

In 1977, the Grange was set alight and in the same year Spiros was born – I liked how the stories of the young girls attempt to get the authorities to do something concrete about homelessness joined dots and linked to the fight to save the Grange examining the big picture of neighbourhood character and housing.

We listened to the deep and soothing tones of Michael Caton as he explained how the history of the country could be told through the prism of Melbourne’s heartbeat – represented by Kingston (lots of smiles at that) – and the six stories would reveal the culture and the history of the area between the years of 1976 and 1981.

He supported the artists’ assertions that the image of Moorabbin as ‘a sleepy suburb‘ in the late 70s and early 80s ‘disguises a politically charged population actively participating in international protest movements.’

I came to live in Mordialloc, now part of Kingston, in 1984 but lived in other suburbs of Melbourne for the latter part of the 70s. It was good to be reminded of some of the ‘Headline’ stories of past media frenzies and to consider how close to home the events happened.

Story Two – When Sport is Not Necessarily Sporting

I have to confess that most stories about sport – particularly sporting celebrities, leave me underwhelmed.

I played sport when I was younger and was captain of the hockey team at Croydon High School in the 1960s, played hockey for ANU Seconds in the 70s and for the B-grade team for the City of Croydon – I even played netball as a young mum at Mordialloc Community Centre until a fall and cracked sacrum made that inadvisable.

I am a team player but would rather play than watch sport and prefer the days when Sport was added to the News and not considered the main item.

My knowledge regarding the 1980 scandal of Phil Carman’s behaviour negligible – in fact, non-existent.

head butt incident
Image sourced from YouTube – Video still, Phil Carman and Graeme Carbery, the footage was taken in 1980

The story revolved around Phil Carman who was one of the VFL’s most awarded players despite being frequently reported for bad behaviour.

Local performers explored an infamous head-butting incident between Phil Carman and umpire Graeme Carberry on Moorabbin Oval. This was filmed by video artist Laresa Kosloff and displayed on a large screen in the foyer of the club building.

Phil copped a year-long suspension and it was the end of his football career, which by all accounts was turbulent. He’d probably last one game nowadays!

Phil Carman was one of the VFL’s most brilliant players, dazzling spectators and developing a passionate following amongst fans in the 70s and early 80s. However, his career was marred by violent incidents, resulting in short-lived contracts with four VFL clubs.

This behaviour culminated in the 1980 season at Moorabbin Linton Street oval when Carman head-butted umpire Graeme Carberry, earning him the longest suspension in VFL history (20 weeks), and signalling the end of his career as a player.

Laresa Kosloff creates a choreographed video work with local footballers, exploring the gestures and symbols that characterise the Phil Carman incident and Aussie Rules football during the late 70s and early 80s…

Inspired by the ‘headbutt incident’ Laresa is currently working on an abstract interpretation of the moment that investigates the unique and universally understood language of sport.

Laresa grappled with finding a way to bring sensitivity and critical analysis to the moment without being dismissive or disrespectful to the footballing community. As with most of her practice, she navigates this thin line through carefully choreographed humour and slapstick comedy, keeping this quirky work accessible and open to all.

She has spent hours going through interviews and game footage and sketching the postures and movements inherent to the game. Through this process, she began to map out the language of gestures, emotions and the body universally understood to sporting fans across the globe.

Many of those on the bus obviously understood footy better than me and loved the video installation. I was more interested in seeing where tax dollars have been invested in this very new stadium.

As a first-time visitor, I found the home of St Kilda Football Club quite amazing and I’m sure the community is thrilled.

Our art tour interruption seemed to go unnoticed by the public intent on watching a game in progress.

No doubt the head-butt story filled the pages of local and state newspapers in 1980 and I am aware of recent controversies in sport but still have a lack of enthusiasm when some football stories (like who has a knee injury) are elevated to prime importance in the nightly news bulletins.

However, in display cabinets in the foyer, part of a Heritage Museum, the exploration of the club’s Indigenous connections is interesting with the stand taken by Nicky Winmar against racism a pivotal moment in the code.

Perhaps the subject of a future storytelling tour?

And of course, there is always the importance of what diehard fans bring to the spirit of the club.

In the 90s, when my daughters attended Mordialloc Primary School there was a yearly fundraiser revolving around Melbourne’s football teams and team colours replaced uniforms for the day.

On ‘Pie & Tinnie Day’, students bought a meat pie and can of soft drink from the Canteen and donated one and two cent coins by creating a line on the floor behind their footy team’s poster.

I learnt then how popular St Kilda was as their line snaked out the door. It was a team most in the Southeastern suburbs regarded as theirs.

Our household not footy enthusiasts but my daughter, Anne barracked for Footscray because they were called the ‘dogs’ and had a bulldog as their emblem. Devoted to real live dogs, which still are her favourite pet, she put her couple of dollars on the floor for Footscray.

However, I often had to rush home and grab John’s loose change from his bedside table so that Anne, who seemed to be the sole ‘doggy’ supporter wasn’t embarrassed by having the smallest donation line in the school!

There are consequences if you live in Melbourne you must follow footy and defend your team’s honour at all costs!

watching footy sunday morning

When we left St Kilda’s grounds, the bus turned onto the Nepean Highway near Wickham Road and I saw a few more streets I’d never seen before we entered a semi-industrial area.

Story Three – Fair Pay Worth Fighting For

On the bus, we heard the story of workers protesting for fair pay and better working conditions in 1979.

One of the strikers used his car to block access to the factory. A tow truck was called and while the driver was connecting up the vehicle, its owner stole his keys and threw them over a fence.

Although the original factory is gone, we were taken to the site and saw a re-enactment of

… an infamous incident involving a tow truck and physical struggles between constabulary and workers at the former Phillip Morris car park; a public art installation using illuminated LED boards and text developed with community consultation.

This project has been developed alongside The Gathering Place and Kingston Koorie Mob.

We stayed on the bus but the scene came alive through hearing the descriptions on the police radio and through conversations on the ground all played through the intercom on the bus.

Driving up to that area of Moorabbin, it struck me how high up we were compared to other parts of the city. It was an interesting perspective I’d not seen or understood before.

Story Four – Moorabbin Airport Mystery Remains Unsolved

On the way to our next stop, we were informed that Moorabbin Airport is the second busiest airport in Australia and the home of the Australian National Aviation Museum founded in 1962.

The first fact was interesting but not surprising – anyone who lives in Mordialloc will testify to the regular sound of aircraft overhead.

I visited the Museum years ago and knew friends who volunteered there and wondered how much it had changed because there was often appeals for people to get involved.

Frank Jones, who was a member of Mordialloc Writers’ Group served in the RAAF during WW2 and a short story he wrote was turned into a radio play and performed at the Museum so they were no stranger to getting involved in the arts.

But the story we heard on Sunday was a much more recent event and the enemy – if there was one – came from another world…

missing pilot
Image sourced from abc.net.au – front page of The Australian, Monday, October 23 1978, ‘UFO Mystery’ by Robin Southey

In 1978, Fred Valentich took off from Moorabbin Airport in a Cessna and within minutes, radioed sightings of a metallic object hovering above him and then there was silence!

It was a routine training flight to Tasmania but when he and his plane went missing it became the subject of so much speculation it entered the realm of the ‘Twilight Zone’ – the name of a popular TV Show of stories about the paranormal and aliens.

“It is not an aircraft.”

On the evening of October 21st 1978, nineteen-year-old pilot Frederick Valentich disappeared shortly after take-off from Moorabbin airport.

Before his disappearance, Valentich reported sighting a metallic aircraft moving at high speed. Reports further southeast noted a similar aircraft sporting multiple lights on its belly before transmission abruptly ceased. Valentich and his plane were never seen again.

Partnering with the Australian National Aviation Museum and the Victorian UFO Action Group, artist collective Field Theory will work with volunteers to tell the conflicting stories, myths and unassuageable mysteries that took this story to the top of Australian security organisations.

This interactive project drops the audience deep inside the many mysteries surrounding this story.

On the bus, making full use of the intercom again, we heard the conversation between the pilot and air traffic control, we also heard excerpts of the Minutes Of October 27, from the investigation into the missing plane with a conclusion ‘human factors’ played a significant role.

There was mention of the pilot’s low IQ, his failed exams and psychological assessments, his dream to be in RAAF probably unattainable and his stories of many flying activities a facade to impress.

On the 15th October, during a drive in the Dandenongs with his girlfriend, he was reported to have said if a UFO landed, he would go in it but ‘not without you’.

The authorities emphasised he often talked about UFOs and they worked hard to besmirch his character.

Why?

His girlfriend went into a hotel near where the plane disappeared and asked for the pilot by name. They’d arranged to meet at 7.00pm but he’d already vanished.

There were articles in The Australian about a clairvoyant and New Zealand author, Colin Avery who held a seance. He said he’d been contacted by Fred. His message being – I’m in space with aliens.

He told Fred’s father to go into his son’s bedroom and wait to be contacted. Unfortunately, there was a mix up with time zones!

Sixty seconds of the radio transmitted conversation is believed to have been edited with accusations the pilot claimed he was in a galaxy far away, no longer having a physical body but was with others chosen.

I wonder what really happened??

I wonder if this tree at the airport holds secrets?

tree with vines

Story Five – Who Knew ‘Jessie’s Girl’ Lived in Mordialloc?

Jessie's Girl a hit
Image sourced by Shane McGrath: Photo of Rick Springfield. Background: video still of Rick Springfield, Jessie’s Girl, 1981

The next story stop was perhaps the biggest surprise to me – it was a five-minute walk from my house and as the bus pulled into the parking lot at Central Bayside Health we heard the story of Rick Springfield and his hit record Jessie’s Girl, which ushered in the new pop sound – a generational hit record produced by an Aussie!

Rick hailed from the ‘aspirational suburb’ of Parkdale and often visited the family home in Melrose Street, a haven of middle-class suburbia. He held his wedding reception in the house and used it as a bolt hole with not much changed from his childhood except the corner milkbar now a beauty salon.

Kingston has produced many famous sons and daughters but none quite like Rick Springfield who, in a little known fact, spent his teenage years in Parkdale.

First a heart-throb and actor in American soap General Hospital, Springfield became internationally famous for his worldwide smash hit single, Jessie’s Girl, released in 1981. The song climbed to no.1 and went platinum in the USA and Australia.

Artist Shane McGrath and local musicians honour Springfield’s place in the rock pantheon, creating their own renditions of Jessie’s Girl in the streets of Parkdale, headed up by a phalanx of bull terriers, after Rick Springfield’s love for the breed.

The scene recreated was the promotional video Rick made and we marched behind the banner and a tambourine and flute band, singing along to a boom box belting out Jessie’s Girl until we were outside Rick’s house with “Rick” himself, led there by four dogs!

Apparently, each day there is a different musical band with a brass band promised one of the performances.

Regardless of the musicians, it is a lovely, happy, interactive interlude.

Story Six – the Final Flourish

protest quilt 2
Image credit for Featured image: Girls Just Want to Have FUNdamental Human Rights by Tal Fitzpatrick (2015) 50cm x 50cm

The last story featured was that of Julie Cooper who paved the way for women to enter local politics when she was elected Moorabbin City’s first female Councillor in 1976 and went onto being their first female Mayor in 1982.

A stadium named in her honour continues to be a point of contention.

Julie Cooper HTV card
Supplied by her family

On the 12th of June 1902, Australia became the first country in the world to give women the right to vote and stand for office.

However, in Moorabbin, it wasn’t until 1976 (74 years later) that the first female councillor, Julie Cooper, was elected. Julie went on to challenge the norms of local government and fulfilled another milestone when she was elected the city’s first female mayor in 1982.

Her groundbreaking achievements are today reflected in a Beaumaris stadium that bears her name and marks her role in creating opportunities for women in local politics.

As we returned to the Kingston Arts Centre we heard about Craftism – craft and activism combined to make social change – something dear to Julie’s heart.

Since the term craftivism was coined by Betsy Greer in 2003, the idea has blossomed into a global movement of like-minded makers who mend the fabric of society and make with meaning.

protest quilt 1

Textile artist Tal Fitzpatrick, along with local crafters practising hands-on craftivism, celebrates the contribution of female and gender non-conforming leaders and invited participants to take part in the struggle for gender equality.

A Melbourne-based artist who is curious about the ways craft can be deployed to bring people together and drive positive social change, Tal hosted a series of free craftivist protest banner-making workshops in Kingston during March and April.

Participants created a textile protest banner of their own. Materials were provided and these were the banners we collected at Moorabbin Station and carried and marched back to the Kingston Arts centre carpark to finish a wonderful tour!

We walked up Nepean Highway carrying the wonderful banners high led by Marcia chanting:

‘What do we want?’

‘Another election!’

‘When do we want it?’

‘Now!’

I think Julie Cooper would have approved.

In fact, I know she would because her daughter Mandy and family were there marching and Mandy Cooper and husband John are the friends I reconnected with and previously mentioned as ‘the blast from the past’!

Cooper Family

A selection of the banners will also be featured in an exhibition curated by Tal, called Crafting Resistance: Six Moments in Kingston at Kingston Arts Centre in September 2019 so if you can’t take part in a guided tour of Kingston’s streets and some of the stories they hold this weekend perhaps attend the exhibition – I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

our bus patiently waiting
The driver waiting with the patience of a saint!

Underground – an exploration of what lies beneath the surface of a war hero

Nancy Wake WW2.jpg
Nancy Wake, WW2 Hero

On Thursday night, I attended Underground, a play at the Shirley Burke Theatre, Parkdale – a great venue within walking distance of my home in Mordialloc, but also opposite the Parkdale Railway Station.

When I arrived home, I couldn’t wait to share the experience with my daughter.

‘What a wonderful evening! It made me glad to be a writer – so inspiring. An original interpretation… makes me want to write… keep trying different ways of telling great stories!’

‘Glad you’re so happy, Mum. Obviously, much better than your last experience,’ Mary Jane observed.

Yes, I’ve reached the stage where if I don’t like a play or film, or a book, I don’t force myself to see it through to the end and a couple of months ago, my friend Lisa and I walked out of the same theatre at the interval.  We preferred sharing a coffee and chatting to returning for the second half!

‘Indeed,’ I answered, ‘but… this production was clever, well-acted, and focused. A fantastic retelling of a powerful story about a truly heroic and intriguing woman – who so many people don’t know anything about – you included!’

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A Great Night At The Theatre A Much-needed Injection Of Joy

With my own writing in the doldrums, it was a change to feel happy and invigorated about writing. I wanted to talk about the story, the production, presentation, the acting, the stagecraft …

There is a wonderful feeling of elation when you watch a play or a film and it affects you that way. Just like the satisfaction of finishing a good book or short story.

You relish the experience, wish it hadn’t ended, want to prolong the ideas, emotions, and memories stirred. You’re ready for a discussion or to revisit a second show, a replay or reread.

There is no mystery as to why book clubs, and film and theatre appreciation groups thrive.

I missed out getting a copy of the programme – they ran out – but the lady next to me retrieved her folded copy from her bag and I snapped a shot with my phone camera.

The eclectic list of supporters thanked is interesting and indicative of the importance of this work in the wider community as well as the art world.

  • Professor Graeme Wake, a distant relative of Nancy who had joined efforts to see her honoured by New Zealand, said her death was a sad day for the country.
  • Anthony Crowley, multi-award-winning playwright
  • Michael Brindley, writer Stage Whispers
  • The Hon Tim Fischer, retired politician, leader of National Party 1990-1999
  • Uschi Felix -a versatile actress professionally trained in Germany and Australia
  • Josh Burns Labor candidate for the new Federal seat of Macnamara
  • Marisa Cesario, Programming Coordinator at Gasworks Arts Parks
  • Tamara Jungwirth, Director and CEO of Gasworks Arts Park

The Writer, Christine Croyden’s Note

Nancy Wake (1912-2011), now as The White Mouse (die Weisse Maus) left Sydney for Paris at eighteen and became a celebrated WW2 spy. She was one of only thirteen female special agents to survive the war.

My interest in her story began in 2015 when I wrote the book and lyrics for a musical The White Mouse, licensed by DSP in Sydney. In 2017, I spent six months as a resident with a theatre company in Paris where my interest in the French resistance and the German Occupation of France reignited. During this time I wrote Underground.

I describe it as a hallucinatory view of Nancy’s life.

Nancy was never keen on anyone messing with her story and hated all films, TV series and almost everything that was ever written about her, so I doubt she’d like my play.

However, I hope the small grains of truth contained within this fictionalised drama illuminate her complexity. Nancy Wake was (and still is) often referred to as a ‘difficult woman’.

She was not recognised for her efforts during WW2 in Australia until very late in her long life, despite her bravery and the admiration of the French for her contribution to their Resistance and subsequent Liberation.

In a culture where we are finally beginning to recognise women for what they do rather than how they look or behave, I feel Underground has something to say.

Christine Croyden, February 2019.

portrait of Nancy Wake

The above portrait is a rare picture of Nancy wearing some of the honours she received:

  • The George Medal,
  • 1939-45 Star,
  • the France and Germany Star,
  • the Defence Medal,
  • the British War Medal 1939-45,
  • the Croix de Guerre with Palm and Bar,
  • the Croix de Guerre with Star,
  • the US Medal for Freedom with Palm
  • the French Medaille de la Resistance
  • and she is an Officer of the Legion d’Honneur.

Underground has a lot to say and the execution by superb actors – especially Margot Knight – was impressive.

The technique of having an aged Nancy reflect on her life just before another ceremony lauding her war service, and having other actors portray the flashbacks on stage, sometimes with the older Nancy interacting, worked extremely well.

Margot Knight stayed in character throughout – her slower movements, facial expressions and word delivery never faltered. She was Nancy!  Her memories a bit addled from age, grief, and her love of Gin, but with such clear and believable delivery.

Nancy Wake was in her 99th year when she died. Her life before, during, and after the war could fill volumes.

Christine Croyden’s attempt to capture the essence of this complicated human being deserves high praise.

The ‘White Mouse’ helped countless people escape death and torture in Occupied France. On the Nazi’s ‘Most Wanted’ list she earned the moniker White Mouse because of her elusiveness. after effective operations against the enemy.

When she managed to escape to England she trained as a spy and was parachuted back into danger despite knowing the consequences if she was caught. Her French husband, Henri was tortured and murdered by the Nazis.

Nancy earned the reputation of being strong mentally, physically and emotionally – legend has her killing a man with her bare hands and executing a German agent by shooting her in the back of the head.

Underground tells us the highlights of Nancy’s life focusing mainly on the WW2 era and the drama is enhanced by song and choreography.

The story of Nancy Wake’s exploits as spy and hero are well-documented with several online links containing excellent detail. There is some repetition and the usual discrepancies regarding dates and other information because most of the articles reflect the paucity of resources available.

Everyone agrees that for a very long time Nancy Wake was ignored/neglected in a way no male war hero ever suffered.

Nancy Wake on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nancy_Wake

Nancy Wake – the girls who spied: https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/fierce-girls/nancy-wake-the-girl-who-spied/9485892

Nancy Wake OA – Education Services Australia: https://www.civicsandcitizenship.edu.au/cce/nancy_wake,17565.html

Nancy Wake, A larrikin and a hero: http://www.convictcreations.com/history/nancywake.htm

National Portrait Gallery – Capturing TheMouse
Nancy Wake – The White Mouse, 2001 by Melissa Beowulf: https://www.portrait.gov.au/magazines/13/capturing-the-mouse

My Mother was a huge fan of telling the stories of women’s contribution because she felt ‘herstory’ important. It was Mum who bought me a book on Joan of Arc, The Maid of France, the French author Collette and Nancy’s book which was first released in the 1980s. Mum encouraged me to read widely and seek the untold or rarely told stories.

I read the autobiography and later when studying at university, bought a biography written in 1956 about Nancy by Russell Braddon who had been a POW of the Japanese. A prolific author, he suffered a mental breakdown several years after the war, which doctors attributed to his war experiences.

The effect of trauma and the horrendous violence people witness and become part of during a war and how it may change your attitude and personality, and most certainly your outlook on life is explored in Underground. 

The stresses and effect of the journey of other characters and their relationships with Nancy included.

However, it is the price Nancy paid for her courage and persistence and the price she saved others from paying that you think about long after the play is over.

There was a TV series starring the brilliant Noni Hazelhurst as Nancy a few years ago too and a couple of documentaries worth following up.

Why Do We Do What We Do?

That question of WHY concerning human behaviour is difficult to answer and because all of us are complex with varying degrees of experiences, different backgrounds and perspectives with various wants and needs, it is an eternal conundrum to be explored.

The ‘human condition’ a topic most writers of every genre are drawn to explore.

To dissect, and attempt to understand… Scottish poet, Rabbie Burns said, ‘the moving why they do it‘… It may be an unanswerable question.

… To step aside is human:

One point must still be greatly dark,

The moving Why they do it;

And just as lamely can ye mark,

How far perhaps they rue it…

from Address to the Unco Guid, or the Rigidly Righteous by Robert Burns

Christine Croyden has succeeded in tackling that bastion of male stories – heroism during wartime, with Underground. Succeeded shedding a little light on the motivation of Nancy Wake and her legacy.

The Allied authorities acknowledged Nancy’s exuberant spirits and physical daring but thought she was just ‘good for morale’ whereas the men and women on the ground who saw her in action formed a different opinion.

“She is the most feminine woman I know until the fighting starts. Then she is like five men.”

one of Nancy’s WW2 comrades she Captained

It is a contemporary play with a powerful beginning which gives a nod to Nancy’s New Zealand roots when the aged Nancy performs the Māori haka – a memorable visual feast.

A creative way of declaring her birthplace and links to a proud warrior race plus the profound links between Australia and New Zealand through the commemoration of ANZAC.

Nancy’s pre-war career as a journalist is used to good effect too and employing poetic licence we hear Nancy describe the horrific events of the 1938 Kristallnacht while recounting her experience of going to Vienna in 1933 to interview Adolph Hitler.

Nancy witnessed the ill-treatment of the Jewish population and the emotional rendition by Margot Knight leaves you in no doubt why Nancy dedicated her life to fighting the Nazis.

The playwright has drawn on all the available information but Margot Knight gives us insight into the horror’s effect on a young Nancy who wrote about her visit to Vienna.

“The stormtroopers had tied the Jewish people up to massive wheels. They were rolling the wheels along, and the stormtroopers were whipping the Jews. I stood there and thought, ‘I don’t know what I’ll do about it, but if I can do anything one day, I’ll do it.’ And I always had that picture in my mind, all through the war.”

Nancy Wake went on to become the Allies’ most decorated servicewoman, eventually collecting bravery awards from France, England, Australia and the United States.

In answer to being overlooked, she said of Australian authorities, ‘they can stick their award and be thankful it’s not a pineapple’.

Australia was slow to acknowledge her contribution but New Zealand is still to officially acknowledge their ‘daughter’ despite the efforts of a relative Professor Graeme Wake.

Professor Wake who met up with Nancy in 1990 said:

When I met her she was always adamant she was a New Zealander, she kept her New Zealand passport right through to when I met her and I believe beyond…

She never lived much of her life in New Zealand and left as a small child, when she was taken by her parents to Australia and hardly came back…

I believe she made one fleeting visit as a youngster to see her father before she went to Europe …

She was a forthright person, very direct on her views, clear on her views.  You knew exactly where you stood with her… a toughness of spirit which you can only admire.  

So Many Stories Still to be Told

Other Nancy quotes:

I hate wars and violence, but if they come I don’t see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas.’

‘I got away with blue murder and loved every minute of it.’

She is also reported to have said she hoped to go down in history as the woman who turned down 7,000 sex-starved Frenchmen! 

Perhaps her personality and attitude came from a tough early life when her journalist father returned to New Zealand deserting his wife and six children.

She was certainly no shrinking violet or demure lady often portrayed as the norm.

Nancy was a nurse in Australia during the early 1930s but harboured dreams of a different life and when she inherited money from an aunt left for Europe as soon as could be arranged.

What would her life have been like if no world war?

Nurse, ambulance driver, journalist, spy, commando, war hero, would-be politician…

Underground is a great play but it sparks interest and shines a light on a host of other stories deserving to be told about Nancy and many others from that era.

The play is an inspiration for telling stories in an entertaining and memorable way and I hope it returns to Kingston and more people take the opportunity to see it.

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Road To Perdition Paved With Darkness Yet Riveting Viewing

road to perdition DVD

Maybe it is all the grim news that seems to pervade every news bulletin and many social media posts, combined with having time to clear shelves and files on the computer now I’m semi-retired, but virtual and digital worlds coincided yesterday.

I took a rest from deleting files when I discovered the first film review I ever wrote and searched to see if I still had the DVD. The review was an assignment for one of the units in my master’s degree, 2010, and the DVD was a bargain basement JB HiFi sale item – Road To Perdition.

Up until I studied for the Masters In Writing, my writing centred mainly on short stories and poetry – fiction writing. I also wrote reports for the Union of Australian Women and dabbled in life writing/memoir but never thought about being a reviewer of books, let alone film, which is not a genre I’d ever claim expertise in critiquing.

However, with one daughter having a Bachelor of Film & Television and the other a Bachelor of Fine Arts majoring in Media Arts, and both loving film, I have been ‘turned on’ to the medium and love its ability to bring stories to life.

I happily absorb all the knowledge shared with me and one of my favourite pastimes is to go to the movies with one or both of the girls and then enjoy a great discussion afterwards.

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Reviewing Has Its Pitfalls

Writing my first review, particularly as an academic assignment was challenging but also interesting because there are many varied opinions about one film – like reading novels – you discover taste is extremely subjective!

There are of course necessary components and expectations of what makes a ‘good’ film just like the techniques required to craft a ‘good’ novel. 

I wrote for a general online audience because as a complete novice, no way could I emulate Margaret and David of television fame, or Jim Schembri, The Age’s regular reviewer in The Green Guide. (Definitely, showing my age here!)

I followed the lecture guidelines and tried to cover all aspects of the craft and techniques of film-making, including sound and cinematography, as well as the narrative and acting.

The title of the film was intriguing and I searched the dictionary for the exact meaning of Perdition:

First meaning –         (a)  archaic : utter destruction.

                                    (b)  obsolete : loss.

Second meaning –    (a ) : eternal damnation.

                                     (b ) : hell.

In Christian theology, it is a state of eternal punishment and damnation into which a sinful and unrepentant person passes after death.

The definition of going down the road/path to perdition is taken to mean travelling towards something very dangerous or harmful.

For example: ‘It’s this kind of selfishness that leads down the road/path to perdition.’

It is an old-fashioned word rarely used nowadays but as mentioned in my opening sentence, it’s a word that suits recent times – and certainly suited this film!

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Film Review: Road To Perdition

Perdition in some religions is the state of everlasting punishment in hell that sinners endure after death, or can mean hell as a location. Director Sam Mendes in his 2002 Road to Perdition, has a neat metaphor – not only are the main characters Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) and his son Michael Jr (Tyler Hoechlin) driving to a town called Perdition but they are also on the way to damnation, unless as in all classical tragedies, they find redemption.

The film’s Oedipal theme explores several aspects of father and son relationships and Tom Hanks is magnificent as the main character, Michael Sullivan. (This is high praise from me because I’m not enamoured with Hanks as an actor.  I will compliment his acting in this movie. It was so good, you can’t recognise him as Tom Hanks!)

The story is about Mike Sullivan being transformed by tragedy to forge a new relationship with his son and to do this he has to destroy the relationship with John Rooney (Paul Newman), the only father he has known.

It is 1931 America, Prohibition is giving Chicago based Al Capone wealth and power and Michael Sullivan, Sr is an enforcer for John Rooney, an organised crime boss in an Illinois town populated by fellow Irish Americans. (Makes a change from the Italian mafia.)

Sullivan, an orphan raised by Rooney, is treated as a favoured son. The resentment felt by Rooney’s real son, Connor (a suitably brutal Daniel Craig), at this relationship, and his vicious murder of a disgruntled employee witnessed by Michael Jr triggers the unravelling of Sullivan Senior’s ordered life.

In his attempt to silence Michael Jr, Connor kills a younger son Peter (Liam Aiken) by mistake and Mike’s wife, Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Sullivan has to salvage what is left of his family; build a relationship with a son he barely knows, and stop him following his path of being on the wrong side of the law.

Road to Perdition, written by David Self, is based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, but is not just a pulp gangster movie, although the influence of The Godfather and The Untouchables is evident. (The latter movie with Kevin Costner as Elliot Ness is one of my favourites!)

An Irish wake establishes the culture of Rooney’s community whereas in The Godfather, it is a wedding, and Mike Sullivan’s perfectly executed campaign against Capone reminds us of Elliot Ness in The Untouchables.

However, the usual Hollywood clichés associated with gangsters are missing – there are no spats, loud suits, and hats strategically placed over eyes or laconic bad guys chewing gum, incessantly smoking, flipping coins, or firing wisecracks.

These are businessmen, ensuring illegal enterprises remain profitable; their world is not glamorous. The film shows the impact of the violence on the person who commits it, or witnesses it. Although there is a lot of killing, much of it happens off-screen.

It is a film of lost innocence because the 12-year-old narrator, Michael Jr not only witnesses a brutal slaying but is suddenly confronted with the truth that his father is a cold-blooded killer and his cuddly ‘grandfather’ Rooney is a manipulative crime boss.

Dialogue is sparse. Based on a graphic novel the film is told in scenes that are sometimes silent — superb showing not telling. Tom Hanks is brilliant as the inarticulate cold hit man struggling with personal grief, not apologising for the life he has led, determined on vengeance while saving his only son.

Stillness and stunning imagery are used to build the powerful emotions of Rooney and Sullivan coming to terms with the changed circumstances precipitated by sociopath Connor’s actions.

There are few speeches of explanation, rather dialogue such as John Rooney’s statement to Mike that, ‘It’s a natural law that sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers.’

And later in a pivotal showdown, ‘There are only murderers in this room, Michael. Open your eyes. This is the life we chose. The life we lead. And there is only one guarantee–none of us will see heaven.

Director Mendes says the film is ‘about the legacy that fathers leave sons and the secret worlds parents inhabit that the child never really knows.

Camera angles are deliberately chosen to see events from Michael Jr’s viewpoint. The New York Times described it as ‘a truly majestic visual tone poem‘ and it is true that cinematographer, Conrad L. Hall creates a world where light struggles to penetrate the darkness, sinister shadows bedevil the night, and long corridors intimidate, fearful faces are half-seen, and a ballet of looks and eye contact produce tension to keep the audience engaged.

The opening scenes of winter snow and ghost-like crowds change in a seasonal shift towards spring, new life and light, but the characters must first survive the visceral chill of downpours and more than one hail of bullets.

Rain runs off the brims of fedoras, soaks thick overcoats, bounces on streets and windscreens. Weather as uncontrollable as the violence set in motion by Connor.

Darkness stresses the atmosphere of destruction, and there is no character darker than Harlan Maguire (Jude Law) a strange, sinister, sadistic hired assassin who hunts the Sullivans at the behest of Capone’s organisation.

In one confrontation, Maguire is scarred and the mercenary job becomes personal. His pursuit of the Sullivans provides an explosive climax and an opportunity for amazing cinematography.

There are many captivating moments that are emotionally-engaging, particularly between father and son, and I guarantee you won’t see the surprise ending coming!

However, true to the era and the story’s comic book origins women are mainly background ‘broads’. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s appearance is brief. She cooks meals, is silently supportive, and is murdered.

Made in 2002, the other female roles of an aunt, waitress, a prostitute, and an old childless woman are even briefer but not sure I’d warm to any female character playing a prominent role in such a violent world.

Despite the macho emphasis, Road to Perdition is impressive and entertaining. The careful attention to detail (especially historical aspects of costumes, dialogue and attitude), the quality of the acting (Hanks, Newman, Law and Craig deliver excellent performances), and the haunting musical score by Thomas Newman crafts a fine tale into a memorable film.

Added Extras

Perdition, Michigan refers to a made-up town but the film is set along the shore of Lake Michigan and the graphic novel was based on a true story of Bill Gabel and the Looney mob hell-raising in the Midwest during the Great Depression.

News of the World gave it five stars, ‘The greatest gangster film since The Godfather.’

For writers and storytellers (and students of Masters in Writing!), it is the special features on DVDs that add to the enjoyment of the movie. This DVD is no exception with:

  • Audio commentary by Director Sam Mendes
  • 11 Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary
  • HBO Special: The Making of Road To Perdition
  • CD Soundtrack Promo
  • Photo Gallery (50 stills)
  • Cast and Filmmaker Bios
  • Production Notes

Finally, a quote from the blurb,

‘Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, 1999) brings his haunting vision to a hard-edged story of lost innocence, conflicted loyalty and ambition.’

I still find writing reviews – whether of film or book – challenging but as a creative writer, it is a good exercise.

The deconstructing and examining of the narrative, layers and impact, the characters and details can only help my own understanding of craft and technique of different genres and even stimulate ideas.

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Is Love All We Need?

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#TravelEverywhereWithLove and Dogman

At the beginning of the week, I had to go into the city and because it has been a while, I took the opportunity to stroll through some of the streets and arcades I don’t normally visit and chanced upon a sculpture that looked vaguely familiar yet I hadn’t seen it before.

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Travel with Love is a global public art project that’s re-uniting the world. In the face of closing borders, it stands for keeping minds open and love flowing.

Gillie and Marc are creating interactive bronze sculptures featuring their iconic characters for leading cities across the world. When people see the familiar and beloved Rabbitwoman and Dogman in a city, they’ll know that they’re welcome there.

When I read the blurb, I remembered where I’d seen similar public art – in December 2017, walking along the St Kilda foreshore with visitors from England after showing them the little fairy penguins.

 As unlikely animal kingdom companions, the Rabbit and the Dog represent diversity and togetherness. Without a definitive race, religion, or culture, they symbolize all people as one.

A Case of Love At First Sight?

The artists, Gillie and Marc met on a film shoot in Hong Kong. Apparently, their differences should have been incompatibilities, but ‘their hearts said something else’. Seven days later they were married on the foothills of Mt Everest and are best friends and soulmates,  collaborating for over 25 years as artists.

They appear to be living proof that indeed ‘love is all you need’ and they are spreading that love by ensuring their art makes a powerful statement as a motivating force for compassion and conversation.

Sydney-based they have created these iconic hybrid characters, which are definitely eye-catching and I believe they do what all good public art should do – they start discussions.

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Dogman as paparazzi?

Two of the sculptures in St Kilda paid homage to well-known women:

  • Inspired by Angelina Jolie’s humanitarian efforts with conservation, education and women’s rights. Angelina RabbitgirlStronger than ever – stands tall and strong showing she’ll never give up.
  • Marilyn Monroe may be the world’s most recognisable sex symbol, but behind her twinkling eyes and dazzling smile was a fragile and fearful rabbit-like woman struggling to cope with her own fame. She was also one of the first celebrities to be honoured by the paparazzi. Happy Birthday Mr President highlights society’s obsession with celebrities in a fun and accessible way.

( Marilyn Rabbitgirl strikes that famous pose I wrote about when Bendigo Art Gallery hosted a giant Marilyn statue and exhibition a couple of years ago)

The third sculpture is of coffee mates a beloved motif in Gillie and Marc’s art. These coffee drinker friends warmly remind viewers of their first-morning coffee. Early Morning Coffee shows Dogman and Rabbitwoman peacefully enjoying a morning coffee.

It was loaned to three separate locations in Melbourne: Melbourne Emporium, 500 Bourke Street and St Kilda Pier.

St Kilda Pier bought the sculpture after their three-month loan period because the sculpture was so successful in bringing together the local community.

I don’t know whether Travel With Love will remain on St Collins but considering the current debate engulfing our parliament in recent days concerning refugee policy, I really hope so, because unlike our Federal Government’s attitude this sculpture encourages unity rather than enmity.

In response to the worldwide plight of refugees and immigrants, and changing border control policies, Travel with Love has been created as a stand for global unity. Connected by the public art project, each visitor (traveller and resident alike) will feel like next door neighbours.

…Rabbitwoman and Dogman tell the autobiographical tale of two opposites coming together to become best friends and soulmates. The Rabbit and the Dog, as unlikely animal-kingdom companions, represent diversity and acceptance through love.

Rabbitwoman and Dogman have a dream that all creatures, regardless of race, religion, or orientation can feel accepted and never be judged.

Dogman holds a magnificent red apple. In Chinese, the word for apple is ping. Ping also happens to be the word for peace –  a critical facet to the sculpture’s design.

2018, the Year of the Dog was going to be a year of good fortune, and the artwork aimed to engage existing community residents, while also attracting new visitors to this vibrant hub of multi-culturalism in Melbourne.

In Chinese tradition, when a dog enters a home it symbolizes the coming of good fortune. Dogs are loyal, clever and brave. Best friends to humans, they are known for having harmonious relationships with people from all walks of life and don’t discriminate against socio-economic status, race, religion, or orientation.

 “In the face of last year’s unstable global landscape, an apple signifying peace holds particular importance by spreading the message of diversity and acceptance for all beings… Gillie and I feel deeply connected to this representation, as all of our art is built upon the foundation of love and togetherness.

We combined the powerful image of Dogman with an apple in the hopes of inspiring the public to be brave in the pursuit of a better world. ”

Gillie and Marc

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Writers & Love

Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.

Iris Murdoch 1919-99: ‘The Sublime and the Good‘ in  Chicago Review 13 (1959) 

Most people experience love, without noticing that there is anything remarkable about it.

Boris Pasternak 1890-1960: Doctor Zhivago (1958)

Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.

Ursula K. Le Guin 1929 – 2018: The Lathe of Heaven (1971)

You know very well that love is, above all, the gift of oneself!

Jean Anouilh 1910-1987: Ardèle (1949)

Romantic love is one of the great and popular themes for art, especially literature and screen and in our society, we even set aside a special day to remind us of the fact!

Love The Day
Mairi Neil

Valentine’s Day, a day for lovers
Mr or Mrs Hallmark tell me so.
A day for lovers under covers
Valentine’s Day? A day for lovers!
A day when you forsake all others
A day that costs a lot of dough
Valentine’s Day, a day for lovers
Mr or Mrs Hallmark tell me so!

Remembering Mum
Mairi Neil

I can see you sitting reading a book
Twisting your hair, deep in concentration
I know you’d rather read than cook
I can see you sitting reading a book
Into another world with such a contented look
Did Dad envy the Mills and Boon destination?
I can see you sitting reading a book
Twisting your hair, deep in concentration

But there is also love of country, place, objects, family, food, music, hobbies, sport, film, books, politics, pets … the list extensive… all can add profound meaning to life, be the inspiration for getting up in the morning, the reason for decision-making, and for daily satisfaction.

LOVE

  • a word, a feeling, a concept, a theme… love can be small, specific, detailed, contained within a personal circle or there can be the bigger picture – a love for humanity.

However, you experience love, I hope it involves tenderness and caring, perhaps duty and responsibility, resilience and loyalty, commitment, maybe even fun if it is something rather than someone.

No matter the interpretation or experience, I agree with Gillie and Marc that life is better with love, and kindness, especially when it comes to treating neighbours, immigrants, refugees and others marginalised.

We are lucky to have talented artists who can confront us with ideas, and councils, philanthropists, and communities prepared to invest in public art – whether it be sculpture, murals or other installations.

When I was in Irkutsk, Russia there was a whole park full of installations, many the embodiment of well-known rhymes and fairytales or figures from mythology.

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I loved this one based on the three wise monkeys: hear no evil, see, evil, speak no evil. A cultural icon originally from the east (Japan) and well-known in the west.

I remember a small brass ornament that always sat on the mantlepiece during my childhood and I know many people in my age group (aged pensioners unite!) will remember something similar.

I wrote a prose poem years ago in class when I gave the students an exercise based on ‘an object of significance’ from their childhood.

Three Wise Monkeys
Mairi Neil

Mizaru, Kikazaru and Iwazaru sit on the mantlepiece:
seeing no evil, hearing no evil, and speaking no evil.
A Japanese pictorial maxim transplanted to Scotland.
Brought home by a great uncle, a ship’s captain,
these wise monkeys an added admonishment
to a childhood steeped in Presbyterian rules.
Yet, the shadow of evil an unseen cloak –
we live in the tatters of World War Two.
Crowded cemeteries, buildings awaiting demolition,
food rationing… crippling austerity,
shattered families struggle to find meaning,
shudder if ambulance and police sirens wail.
Speak no evil an achievable rule perhaps
but hearing no evil more difficult
and what of seeing evil or evil seen?
The brass monkeys a cold and chilly weight
in my child’s hand… etching a mystic message
of rules, to chant in the playground.

In Yekaterinburg, Siberia there was a delightful animal orchestra near the arts precinct. They brought a smile to my face and like the fairytale park in Irkutsk presented a different image of a country often represented in the media by military statues and huge murals of revolutionary figures.

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I also loved this one of folk musicians in a park renowned for festivals and open-air concerts. having lived through the 70s and adoring Dylan and Donovan as well as Baez and Mitchell, this couple melted any language barriers.

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But perhaps my favourite piece of public art when I travelled was Wincher’s Stance by John Clinch (an apt name). It was named by Susan Ritchie and commissioned by Strathclyde Passenger Transport Executive. Of course, it’s in Glasgow.

(In Scotland, winch is to kiss and cuddle. It also means to go out regularly with someone.)

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The emotion this couple radiates is recognisable to anyone who arrives or departs from those they love – it can be the joy of reunion, or ensuring a lasting impression.

It can be easy to walk past public art or grow accustomed to it or take it for granted so I’m glad I came across Dogman and reading the artist’s statement helped me reflect on its message.

Love may not be ‘all we need’ but caring for each other and recognising similarities rather than differences is a good start.  A big thank you to the many public art installations that encourage reflection and conversation!

 

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story

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I had a gift voucher to use for the Arts Centre which was close to expiry date (last year was not a good year healthwise for booking anything in advance) and when I saw Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story advertised with a session offering Q & A with the cast afterwards, I knew this was the perfect fit for my voucher  – and which of my friends I’d invite to share the experience.

My friend Lisa, grew up in Caulfield and developed long-standing friendships and a special affinity with Jewish culture. She also loves plays as a form of storytelling, as much as I do.

We both attended The Script Club at The Channel, a studio in the Victorian Arts Centre a couple of years ago, where we discussed classic Australian plays in a series of workshops facilitated by respected writer and drama critic, John McCallum.

What better play for us to see together than one advertised as 

A dark, funny and high-energy klezmer-folk tale inspired by the real-life story of two Romanian Jews seeking refuge in Canada in 1908.

It’s early 20th century Halifax and Chaim and Chaya, hounded from home, are waiting for immigration to decide their future, under threat of tuberculosis and typhus. Will they survive in this new land?

With neo-klezmer songs written by director Christian Barry and acclaimed genre-bending performer and musician Ben Caplan, this quirky one-act musical is written by award-winning playwright Hannah Moscovitch, who based it on the story of her own Jewish great-grandparents.

This bewitching music-theatre hybrid and cautionary tale for modern times – performed with instruments ranging from fiddle to clarinet, accordion, banjo and megaphone – was nominated for six Drama Desk Awards, won multiple Edinburgh Fringe awards and was a New York Times Critic’s Pick.

Old Stock is about humanity and finding your place in the world. Above all this story is about hope.

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The refugee crisis is a topic rarely out of the news, especially in Australia, where we have asylum seekers languishing on offshore islands under indefinite detention and any discussion we have in the media or parliament soon descends into blame, shame, distortion of facts and fear of the other.

Ironically, this week one of the most well-known asylum seekers incarcerated on Manus Island for six years has been awarded the richest literature prize in Australia, plus a smaller non-fiction prize  – a total of $125,000 – and sparking a bitter debate about the what and who is “ Australian”. 

Everyone should listen carefully to the acceptance speech, via video, of Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian Kurdish refugee because it is about being human, not labelling yourself as a particular nationality, religion, or ethnic group.

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story definitely topical!!

Whose interest is served by dividing the world into countries, building walls, increasing security and border checks, incarcerating those fleeing violence and natural disasters, stirring up resentment and hate, attaching ridiculous and misleading labels?

Most people, if given the choice would stay put, live in their own country and prefer peace – that is the reality.

It is catastrophic events like war, civil disturbances, attempted genocide, mass inequality and natural disasters that cause refugees, like the current caravan fleeing multiple crises in Central America.

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, like the novel No Friend But The Mountains challenge us to humanise these tragic circumstances and are great examples of what Ursula Le Guin believed,

Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”

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The Power of Stagecraft

Louisa Adamson & Christian Barry were responsible for set and lighting design but stagecraft also includes technical aspects of theatrical production like sound, costume design and makeup.

All are important to set the scene for the audience but also enable the cast to perform smoothly. 

These technical and artistic elements require a vision and interpretation that suits the theme/story and also gives the audience an enjoyable and entertaining experience.

In the foyer of the theatre, there were displays of costumes and models of sets emphasising these very points. Lisa mentioned how much she had enjoyed The King and I and we observed various people posing for photographs on a mock-up of the set for Evita fancying themselves as Eva Perón!

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story went for 80 minutes without a break providing a challenge that a conventional drama with an interval might not and considering the subject matter and the set, I don’t think many will queue to have their photograph taken.

The lighting always important on stage but for this performance exceptionally so, to focus on a particular performer and distract the audience if props were being moved and others in the cast changed costumes or positions.

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Melbourne’s Art precinct – how lucky are we?

The Fairfax Theatre at the Arts Centre is comfortable and intimate and we had seats in the second row so had a great view of the performers and the set, which when we first sat down looked like a shipping container.

Ben Caplan in a bushy beard, top hat and a purplish jacket is spectacular and loud,  almost raunchy when he appears like a magician amid smoke and flashing lights from the top of the container.

The intro routine opens two large, swinging doors displaying various musical instruments, hats, shawl and other accoutrements on hooks and shelves but Ben sings with gusto and he’s telling the story through his songs, which requires our concentration.

While he captured our attention, the other cast members set up the remaining props and hung the Halifax sign. The compactness and portability of the design clever, and although colourful, never became a distraction from the words and music.

A simple packing case and upended suitcases interchangeable as the characters journey through life and tell their story – which involves settling in Montreal (another sign up) getting married and starting a family.

Ben acknowledged Louise in the Q & A afterwards for the set’s strong visual metaphor. Most refugees have to travel by ship at some stage in their journey (certainly the ones in this story) and it also references World War Two refugees herded into freight train carriages.

I wondered if the white-haired gentleman, who asked the question about the set had memories of his family escaping the Holocaust like Denise Weiss, one of my students who wrote a hauntingly beautiful but sad vignette about her Jewish parents escaping Hungary – a train journey her grandmother and others took that ended in the gas chamber.

Although it is based on the historical upheavals and forced journeys the Jewish people have experienced, the story and characters are an allegory, representing humanity, and all people forced from their home because of war, prejudice, fear, natural disaster, or a desire to improve the lives of their children.

What Influenced/Inspired The Play?

Ben explained, that in 2015 during the Canadian election, he was watching Canada’s Prime Minister give a speech where he referred to ‘Old Stock’ Canadians to distinguish them from recently arrived immigrants and refugees.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper’s use this week of the term “old stock Canadians” in response to a question on support for reduced health coverage for refugees drew swift condemnation on social media, where many suggested the term has racist implications.

The newspaper article linked above has interviews with a variety of Canadians including George Elliott Clarke, Poet Laureate of Toronto. (I’m quoting him because I love poets, especially those with his ability, and who successfully show the personal is political and vice versa!)

Stock: A 7th-generation descendant of black refugees who settled in Nova Scotia in 1813, long before Confederation, Clarke also has native heritage and is a member of the Eastern Woodlands Metis Nation.

“The true ‘old-stock’ Canadians are the First Nations and Inuit and Metis, followed by the many divergent ethnicities who were also present in colonial Canada, from African slaves in muddy York to ‘German’ settlers on the South Shore of Nova Scotia, from the Chinese merchants present in Nouvelle-France to the Portuguese and Basque fishermen of Newfoundland.

“Personally, I think the current Prime Minister is unsure about his own identity and possibly nervous about the true, multicultural, multilingual, multiple-faiths and multiracial Canada that now beautifully, proudly, lives and flourishes.”

But perhaps it is a quote from Elise Harding-Davis, former curator of the North American Black Historical Museum that resonates more with what has happened to the debate in Australia – a debate that went downhill extremely fast with Prime Minister John Howard’s disgusting refusal to let the Tampa land asylum seekers and his declaration of ‘we’ll decide who comes into this country‘ plus his protegees Abbott and Morrison suggesting civilisation began with colonisation and revering Captain Cook!

Like all descendants of escaped slaves, her family was granted Canadian citizenship only in 1911.  “Canada didn’t start out lily white. In fact, the only non-immigrants are the First Nations, aboriginal people… The idea of ‘Canadian stock’ is innocent ignorance. It’s a mindset of traditional thinking that all the people who started anything of note through history were the conquerors.”

The next major influence for Ben was the war in Syria and the appalling images of fleeing refugees and that shocking image of three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi drowned as his family tried to escape. This tiny body, washed ashore at a popular wealthy resort in Turkey, highlighted the suffering and death of many refugees and the huge divide regarding wealth, safety, and lifestyles in the world.

On World Refugee Day 2018, a record 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced in 2017. Record high numbers of men, women and children were driven from their homes across the world due to war, violence and persecution, according to a June 2018 report by the United Nations’ refugee agency.

Playwright, Hannah Moscovitch joined Ben and Christian on the project. Although she is writing about the past and her great-grandparents, she also addresses mass migrations today and the people and countries who oppose and/or resent those migrants. She is also a playwright unafraid of making the personal political.

Singer-songwriter Ben Caplan is the story-teller/God, a performance almost Vaudevillian as he behaves like an emcee (that’s where the megaphone listed as a musical instrument comes in) and also sings, dances (one number for me recalled a scene from Fiddler On The Roof) and acts in-between introducing the various scenes where Chaim (Dani Oore) and Chaya (Mary Faye Coady) tell their story intermingled with musical interludes. (Dani plays the woodwind and Mary Faye, the violin).

This is a tragedy with comedic streaks, especially the brilliant inflexions of Chaya and Chaim’s voices delivering their lines, many with the irony and chutzpah identifiably Jewish. Mary Faye said she listened to many accents online and worked on her voice for over a year to get the accent right. (She is of Scots/Irish descent, like me.)

The rhyme and rhythm of Ben’s songs catchy (if somewhat repetitive) but one, in particular, had the audience in an uproar when he recited euphemisms for sex (some I’d heard, others bizarre) and then suggested perhaps celibacy needed ‘careful consideration’.

When he dons the shawl of a rabbi and sings as a cantor, his voice and words are haunting – I found it deeply moving, even although it wasn’t in English – the meaning and emotional impact understood.

From the reaction of the audience and the questions after the show, it is obvious many were Jewish and the choice of music and songs triggered personal memories.

One lady of Russian descent, remembered a traditional lullaby her grandmother used to sing and suggested it be included in the show to make the scene where a lullaby is sung more authentic – Ben Caplan thanked her for her input but the power of art – song, poetry, drama, music, dance – crosses all boundaries and the writer and cast want to reach the largest possible audience.

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story touched me, a person without a Jewish heritage. I found it captivating, emotionally engaging, entertaining and memorable with, I suggest, enough authenticity to satisfy most of the Jewish people present but not isolate Gentiles.

The story is about Jewish refugees Chaim and Chaya meeting in the line at the Immigration Centre in 1908 Halifax, Canada. They are both new arrivals from Romania, both traumatised from harrowing journeys but ordered into a line for the sick. He might have typhus because he has a rash. She might have caught her sister’s tuberculosis, she has a cough. He is ‘just a kid’ at eighteen years old but after seeing his family murdered in a pogrom has grown up fast. She is twenty-four, too young to be a widow but her husband and child didn’t survive the arduous journey they made across Russia to escape what Chaim lived. 

Will they be allowed into Canada?  Will they live long enough to establish a new life? Will they fall in love and have a future together?

The Jewish experience is dominant and when you read (warning this is very disturbing)  about the rise of anti-semitic behaviour in Melbourne, this is a play with subject matter that needs as wide an audience as possible, with more Q and A’s afterwards discussing the points it raises.

What do you choose to do if someone is pounding on your door needing help – do you let them in or ignore their plight?

When are people accepted as citizens or allowed to belong and their contribution acknowledged?

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From Santa Barbara History department

The story seeks the sympathy and understanding of the audience and challenges us to confront the reality of refugees, the various reasons and circumstances forcing people to seek asylum, and the dehumanising language used by politicians, the media and bigots, the myths and misinformation, the stirring of fear when it should be compassion…

If someone is seeking help does it matter what religion, what colour, what language group, what religion they are – isn’t the fact they are desperate for help enough?

People are not numbers, not statistics, not clones – humanity is diverse.

To tell this story with shades of light and dark, fast-paced mood changes and engaging craftmanship of acting, voice, dance and music, the cast deserves hearty congratulations and lots more success as they take their show around the world.

Simone de Beauvoir once said:

It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting.

I’m so glad I heard a little of the lives of Hannah Moscovitch’s Chaim and Chaya and will continue to advocate for our government to treat better those who come to Australia.

 

 

 

 

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.

close up jane writing.jpg

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!