Visit Shetland with Sunglasses & a Sense of Adventure

panoramic view of port
Arriving at the port of Lerwick

We are experiencing a colder winter than usual this year and as I shiver, Facebook reminds me that two years ago I enjoyed warm spring weather in the UK including the lovely two weeks experiencing the Absolute Orkney & Shetland Islands Escape with several days spent in Shetland.

I’m now revisiting that time in Shetland while continuing the journey of going through boxes of past writing and teaching files to ‘clear out clutter’.

Recently, I discovered one of the first poems I wrote when I moved to Mordialloc and attempted to fulfil a dream to be a writer.

Whether scribbled poems (and this one was pre-computer days for me) or journal notes, the words, like my Facebook posts and photographs catapulted me to another place, another time – in many ways – another me!

The Change of Seasons
Mairi Neil, 1992

A winter’s day at the beginning of June,
who would have thought it cold so soon?
The hum of the fan as the gas fire burns
lifeless clothes drip on the hoist as it turns
the breeze gentler no more leaves falling
but the plaintive cry of cockies calling
to be released from their caged captivity
a monument to mankind’s insensitivity.

The cold weather outside, wet and bleak –
where is the sunlight we all seek?
My neighbour traps birds to keep for pleasure
others destroy the environment to amass treasure
I frequently criticise but no action take –
is my concern for social justice all just fake?
The silent majority murdered the Vietnamese
a radical student, I demonstrated with ease

Like winter’s rain, my protests poured down
on the heads of politicians – even the Crown.
There are always Vietnams, wrongs to be righted
has motherhood, mortgage, my conscience blighted?
Puddles on the concrete quiver and ripple
Raindrops plop like intermittent spittle
Was I more effective when young and carefree?
Persistently protesting – no one silenced me!

Perhaps mature responsibilities have weakened my voice
the business of raising a family offers limited choice…
When young, I felt strong like the rain – now I’m spittle
still caring deeply, yet doing too little
Can I blame it on SAD – sunlight deprivation
And be like a bear, accept temporary hibernation?

Winter Nights In Front of The Telly With Jimmy

On Sunday nights, a new series of the television series Shetland is broadcast. The crime drama has amassed an international audience since it began in 2013. Its popularity due to the excellent adaptation of award-winning crime novels by Ann Cleeves, a location, which provides plenty of stunning coastal scenes, strong storylines, and good acting.

Douglas Henshall plays Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez, the main character and in a recent interview, he agreed that the collection of around 300 islands lying between Orkney and the Faroe Islands, at the area where the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea meet does intrigue and excite viewers.

“Not only because it’s beautiful but because it’s like another character in the show,” he said. “I think people are drawn to the place because they imagine themselves there.”

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Westray shoreline and cliffs – sunglasses a must!

Cinema is all about suspension of disbelief so it may come as a surprise to viewers that many scenes in Shetland are filmed in Glasgow, Barrhead, Irvine and Ayr – hundreds of miles away in the lowlands of Scotland, in places resembling Shetland!

They just have to make sure no stray trees wander into the shot because trees are still not prolific on Shetland – although that is changing!

 

There was certainly a time when Shetland was almost devoid of trees. Old photographs from the early 1900s show a strikingly stark, bare landscape, even in and around settlements.

Whilst it’s true that large tracts of the islands lack tree cover to this day, there’s no doubt that things are changing. In part, this is because of a concerted effort by public bodies to plant more trees over recent decades… 

Archaeological investigations have revealed that Shetland once enjoyed extensive tree and shrub cover, with species such as willow, downy birch, hazel and alder appearing in the pollen record. The real reasons for the lack of trees are to do with clearance for firewood and the presence of sheep, which have prevented natural regeneration. Where sheep are excluded, trees grow with little or no shelter.

Judging by the number of trees sold by local garden centres, not to mention the continuing work of the Shetland Amenity Trust, the Shetland landscape will continue to evolve; around settlements especially, we can expect it to change as much over the next generation as it has in the last one.

Alastair Hamilton, My Shetland, 2015

welcome to shetland sign up close

In June 2017, when I visited Shetland, I still had fun looking for familiar sites from Season 1 & 2 of the TV series, the only seasons released in Australia before I left.

And last night watching the final Season Six, not yet released free to air in Melbourne, it was satisfying spotting places I visited, beaches I walked on, houses or ruins I stood beside contemplating ancient Shetland!

I visited Jarlshof one of the most remarkable archaeological sites ever excavated in the UK spanning Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages to Middle Ages.

No part of Shetland is more than 3 miles from the sea and everywhere the landscape is stunning.

Jarlshof
Mairi Neil

Gulls cry overhead
circling rugged cliffs
and ancient rocks
the remnants of a long-ago
but not forgotten past…
The constant motion
of waves crashing,
massaging, and chipping as they
accompany the wind song –
wild background music to
settlement, farms and crofts…
I imagine a family watching
the horizon with anticipation
the tempestuous sea surging,
the creeping mist of dawn.
Watching with hearts filled with hope
for a returning fishing fleet
or do they tremble with trepidation
at warships ploughing through
the tumultuous waves
to claim a land not their’s?

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the ruins at Jarlshof spanning the late Bronze Age through to the Middle Ages

I don’t read a lot of crime fiction nowadays but often love the TV adaptations, particularly when Ann Cleeves’ great characters like Vera and Jimmy Perez, come to life or Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Alan Hunter’s George Gently and of course Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple.

I can thank my mother for introducing me to Agatha Christie and another of her favourites, Georges Simenon’s, Maigret. I still have several old hardback novels decades old that I should declutter because if the truth is faced, I won’t read them again.

However, they are a link to Mum and a period in my life when I virtually read a book a day commuting by train to work on the old Red Rattlers from Croydon to the City so I just can’t part with them – yet.

I even watch the repeats on TV with several reincarnations of Miss Marple to argue over who is the best and although Peter Ustinov did a fine job in the movies, most people agree that David Suchet has now made Poirot his own.

I’m biased towards British crime novelists and their television adaptations. Many of them character-driven and tackling society’s issues and a bigger picture than petty crime or one issue. They are not just police procedurals (although there is plenty of that), but explore the social reasons for crime, not just the crime itself.

They show justice is fluid and the ones set in particular periods of history mark the effects of social change – or lack of it! They examine the human condition in a way most of us experience and/or comprehend. Who isn’t flawed?

The all-important conflict necessary for gripping fiction is flawed characters and their struggles to come to terms with the world, whether external or internal. Good novelists and screenwriters of the quality of Shetland dish it up in wonderful dollops!

Shetland has examined the rise of populism and the extreme Right, people smuggling and sex-trafficking, social isolation, bigotry, child abuse and the effect of oil and gas discoveries on environmental pollution among other hot topics.

However, one of the best storylines included a character who Ann Cleeves said she wished she had written – Tosh, a female detective who is raped in the line of duty.

The way this tragedy is handled and the arcs of various characters in Shetland are examples of fine writing and storytelling.

Along the way, we learn about life in a close-knit community, where everybody almost seems to know of each other – not hard in a population of 23,000.

As a comparison, I think of the City of Mordialloc before it merged with Kingston in 1994. In an area of 5.25 square miles, there was a population of almost 28,000. A dramatic difference in population density to Shetland’s archipelago.

When I mentioned on FB that I was standing outside the house in Lerwick used for Jimmy Perez, and then posted pictures of other houses used in the series with ‘a murder committed here‘… ‘another crime scene‘ … a friend referring  to the ABC’s Dr Blake Mystery series commented,

Is there anyone left alive in Shetland? It’s a dangerous place, like Ballarat…

Indeed!

A bit like the popular English series Midsomer Murders where picturesque English villages harbour murderers and serial killers who knock off the local population at an alarming rate…

However, be assured Shetland locals are friendly and welcoming as this poster in Shetland dialect on the Library noticeboard says:

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Lerwick Library

And as this article from a local paper relates, Shetland has produced female writers who don’t necessarily delve into the dark side of human nature…

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All the people I came into contact with were wonderful and I’d return in a heartbeat.

I think at this time in my life, a place like Shetland appeals because I can imagine myself in a cottage, tending a garden and writing – no need for bright city lights anymore just a haven to indulge an inner search for peace and serenity!

I made a lovely Canadian friend, Linda during my trip and we still keep in touch hoping that one day we’ll meet again – either in Melbourne or Vancouver.

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Linda and Robina with Linda’s house on Bressay in the distance

Our guide for Shetland was Robina Barton, an expert on history and geology and also the Labour Party candidate for the north, which is held by the Liberal Democrats. (She gave him a good shake in 2017 elections!)

I found her a most obliging and generous guide similar to those I experienced one-to-one in Mongolia and Russia. Enthusiastic, knowledgeable, caring guides who added so much to my extended holiday.

Robina met Linda and me at the ferry terminal and although there was a schedule for the day, she was more than happy to take us for ‘a cup of tea’ where we discussed whether we wanted to stick with the planned tour or do something else that suited our interests and mood.

With mutual understanding, the day went from good to great and helped colour my view of Shetland – I mentioned already I would return in a heartbeat!

In the photo below we were interrupted in our orientation stroll by a man offering free boutique chocolates – now that’s what I call hospitality! A chef who had just moved to Lerwick, he was promoting his soon to be opened restaurant.

chef offering us chocolates

WELCOME TO LERWICK

Lerwick is Shetland’s capital and takes its name from Old Norse Leirvik meaning muddy bay. Sheltered by Bressay over the water – where Robina lives. I could see her house from my hotel window and said goodnight to her twinkling lights after a super day.

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Robina’s house on Bressay – just up the hill from her Liberal Democrat opponent – but they are all great friends on Shetland!

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The natural harbour attracts a wide range of visiting craft and a large cruise ship came in adding to the constant stream of ferries, fishing boats, and working craft from the oil rigs. Also a few moored ‘Viking’ long boats because of course, Shetland celebrates Up Helly Aa – the Viking Fire Festival in mid-winter January.

Lerwick, only officially named the capital in the 19th century, building on the trade from the Dutch herring industry. From a scattering of huts on a shoreline track, the busy Commercial Street developed surrounded by tightly packed narrow lanes. Later, new docks were created north of the town to accommodate the fishing fleet.

The characteristics of the buildings, brickwork and flagstones different from anything seen in Melbourne and many a lot older!

The largest ship built in Lerwick was the barque North Briton in 1836 at Hay’s Dock, now home to the Shetland Museum and Archives. There are models of typical Shetland Boats and to keep alive traditions, festivals are held and displays.

For me, the innovative incorporation of boats in buildings and gardens very appealing, but considering my forbears were all sailors and fishermen from the Isle of Skye, I loved learning about Shetlanders and the sea too!

Facebook Post, June 16, 2017

The Kveldsro House Hotel harks back to another era with Reading Rooms, relaxing lounges and shoe shine machines in the corridor. The bar even has a stained glass sign for Gents and of course, the Ladies Powder Room is some distance away!

There are plenty of tasteful furnishings and interesting artworks. The staff from Portugal, Ecuador, Greece and even Scotland 😆

I have been fortunate with all of the places I have stayed this trip.

Atop a hill and across from Shetland’s highest mountain we found where rocks crack and explode and create a moonscape. Robina a mine of information on the geological formation of Shetland.

Wildflowers blooming, sheep bleating, salt in the air and evidence of human habitation going back hundreds of years as sunlight glitters on the water like scattered gemstones.

Lunch stops are always interesting too, meeting the locals, getting to know each other, tasting Shetland delicacies. And a bonus when it rained while we were snug inside!

Different sides of mainland Shetland have different weather depending on whether exposed to North Sea or Atlantic .

We learnt a lot about geology today from Robina, our expert guide. The variety of rocks amazing. We also went on wildflower searches.

No view here boring and each pile of rocks intriguing – is it a broch, remnants of a tomb, a medieval or Viking village, a deserted croft from the cruel land clearances or collapse of herring fishing industry?

Is that of neolithic significance or a deliberate structure from WW2?

The Kveldsro House Hotel was comfortable and the staff pleasant. I usually had the same woman serving me breakfast, she was from Portugal and couldn’t wait to return home to the Mediterranean sunshine.

To do Shetland justice, I’ll have to write some more posts because although I didn’t experience any crime or startling epiphanies, I did learn some interesting history and a lot more about the natural world of birds and wildflowers.

We even got our ‘Viking’ on when we stopped at a restaurant for lunch that incorporated all things Up Helly Aa. After watching a video on the origins of the Fire Festival and reading reminisces of participants, we could dress up and let loose our inner Viking.

It was a fun interlude in a day that ended depressingly, sad – the Nightly News full of the Grenfell Tower Fire – an incredible tragedy hard to imagine.

I had spent some time in London with a friend when I arrived in the UK for this final leg of my journey and there were a couple of sisters at the hotel who joined our tour the next day who lived in London.

As you can imagine, news updates dominated the mealtime discussions over the next few days.

The horrors and brutality often associated with marauding Vikings wear a different mantle in modern times. Will those in authority whose greed, negligence and even deliberate contempt for others ever be held accountable? Death and destruction among the least wealthy and privileged in society a tale as old as time!

My next post about Shetland will definitely end on a more cheerful note!

 

 

Watch ‘Edie’ – Be Inspired, & Keep Your Dreams Alive

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83-year-old Edie believes that it is never too late – packing an old camping bag, leaving her life behind and embarking on an adventure she never got to have – climbing the imposing Mount Suilven in Scotland.

My daughters bought me this DVD for Christmas and I took the opportunity last weekend amidst our autumn heatwave to watch it. (Something positive and uplifting to take my mind off worrying that those we trusted have left action on climate change too late…)

Empathy

I was only pushing 65 when I went on my travel adventure but since it also included Scotland, I imagine that influenced my daughters’ decision to buy me this DVD.

It certainly is a spectacular showcase of the beauty of my birth country, especially of parts that regular tourists may not see.

Anne and Mary Jane are too young to appreciate what a brilliant actress Sheila Hancock is and probably didn’t realise how much I admire her work. I can still remember the TV series The Rag Trade (circa 1961)  with Miriam Karlin – a show my Mum never missed. (even thinking about it triggers memories of Mum’s laughter and giggling drifting up the stairs in our house in Scotland – a wonderful sound to fall asleep to – an added bonus when gifts of books, DVDs and CDs of music trigger happy memories.)

Sheila also worked on stage, other television productions, and many films – a stellar career.

Sheila Cameron HancockCBE (born 22 February 1933) is an English actress and author. Hancock trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art before starting her career in repertory theatre. Hancock went on to perform in plays and musicals in London, and her Broadway debut in Entertaining Mr Sloane (1966) earned her a Tony Award nomination for Best Lead Actress in Play. She won a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical for her role in Cabaret (2007) and was nominated at the Laurence Olivier Awards four other times for her work in Sweeney Todd (1980), The Winter’s Tale (1982), Prin (1989) and Sister Act (2010).

Wikipedia entry

She is an author of several books. I have her 2004, The Two of Us,  a dual biography, of her life with second husband, actor John Thaw. The book focuses on their careers and 28-year marriage. John died of oesophageal cancer in 2002, the same disease that killed her first husband, actor Alec Ross in 1971. Sheila is also a breast cancer survivor.

(As a widow who also nursed a husband through cancer and then survived breast cancer myself, Sheila’s book resonated with me.)

Not surprising with all the personal emotional and physical obstacles overcome in her life,  she is superb as feisty Edie and any ‘acting’ seems effortless.  At 84 years old when making the movie, Sheila did all the scenes in real time and remains the oldest person to climb Mount Suilven (731 meters or 2398.29 feet) – the normal suspension of disbelief required in cinema easily achieved.

The movie is inspirational and entertaining on several levels – as mentioned the scenery alone absolutely mesmerising, Edie could have been made for the Scottish Tourism Board – I can imagine visitors to Sutherland increased after the film’s release in 2017.

Suilven is one of the most distinctive mountains in Scotland. Lying in a remote area in the west of Sutherland, it rises almost vertically from a wilderness landscape of moorland, bogs, and lochans known as Inverpolly National Nature Reserve. Suilven forms a steep-sided ridge some 2 km in length.

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Mt Suilven Scotland – Wikipedia

A Positive Ageing Story

Edie is not the usual cliched ‘grey power’ movie. There is no reuniting with or meeting a new love interest,  no romantic entanglement, no outsmarting or put down of the younger generation or authority, and no tear-jerking death scene.

Instead, there are interesting layers to unpack and questions left unanswered, leaving food for thought or discussion.

  • Will she now be able to control her future and remain ‘feeling alive’?
  • Has she finally put the past to rest?
  • Can she heal her relationship and reconcile with her daughter?
  • What of her newfound friendship with the young guide – will he make the ‘right’ choice for his future?

Easy to watch, the movie’s overall narrative says it is never too late to make your special dream a reality and be open to new experiences and new friendships

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It is ‘Herstory’

March is Women’s History Month and we learn of women who have made a difference – some of whom were written out of history.

Edie is not a tale of a ‘famous’ female achiever, but it tells a story of limited choice and restrictions familiar to many women, especially of a particular generation – and sadly, perhaps still too familiar!

Edie could be ‘everywoman’ who put the needs and desires of fathers, brothers, husbands, sons and daughters before her own happiness. It is uncomfortable viewing at times.

At the beginning of the movie, we see Edie is the sole carer for a wheelchair-bound husband, George (Donald Pelmear). He can’t speak and has to be aided to eat. When he dies, it is not long before the house is up for sale and daughter, Nancy (Wendy Morgan) is taking Edie to view a residential aged care centre that on first glance looks like a luxury hotel (the camera through Edie’s eyes drawn to a huge golden chandelier in the entrance hall) but to Edie the place represents first class misery.

There is little dialogue in the early scenes but plenty of good acting, directing, and camera work. Edie’s expressions and body language show how unimpressed she is with the facility, despite the over-enthusiastic praise of residents and activities by Nancy.

Trying too hard to ‘sell’ the place,  Nancy and the staff reminiscent of parents talking up boarding school to a reticent child. Naturally, Edie is not cooperating!

The scene where she is supposed to be learning flower-arranging and churlishly snips off the head of a flower once the instructor walks away, a great metaphor – and hints at the rebellion to come.

Edie and Nancy return to pack up the house and encounter a life-changing shock:

  • Edie focuses on an old postcard of Mt Suilven from her Dad promising they’d ‘climb it together‘.
  • Nancy finds a journal her mother kept and is appalled by the anger and misery in the short entries. Edie complains about being trapped, having to look after a child and her sick husband, having no support or pleasure, the unfairness of her workload, of being depressed at the drudgery her life has become and living a life she hates.

Nancy is hurt, offended, and furious, and not interested when Edie tries to explain the journal was a way to release her frustrations at the miserable and restrictive marriage, not motherhood… the crushing of her dreams and loss of independence… She was upset about the demands of caring for her husband after his severe stroke so early in the marriage.

It wasn’t meant to be read by anyone else!’

Nancy is too hurt and stunned to have sympathy.

But I always did my duty,’ Edie yells as her daughter storms out. (It was 30 years of caring.)

And I’m tired of doing my duty,’ Nancy yells back as she tearfully slams the gate.

No winners in that argument just valid points about the strain of changing relationships, the carer’s role, which can occur at any age, and the very human habit of not communicating honestly with those we love, and the huge gaps in society’s resources to help families in times of crises.

Appropriately, it’s a bleak, stormy, wet day and Edie is left standing at the gate drenched in rain (tears?)… like novels, metaphor important in scene setting.

That night Edie burns her journals and almost incinerates the postcard but rescues it and sits staring into the flames, deep in thought.

We glimpse ageing in suburbia with Edie’s only relief from drudgery a cuppa in a favourite local cafe where she is someone other than trapped wife or recalcitrant mother.

A lightbulb moment springs her to action and the gorgeous visuals of the journey north by train begins.  Determined to climb that mountain and keep her father’s promise she has packed ancient equipment, which must be replaced of course and the shopping trip for the latest gear from the Scottish equivalent of Kathmandu provides comedy and pathos.

Many of these scenes resonated with me because when I went into the Tarkine wilderness on a hiking and camping holiday in 2008, I hadn’t shouldered a backpack since Girl Guide days – I was also amazed and shocked at the variety and cost of camping gear but must admit to having fun trying on the clothes just like Edie.

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The Generation Gap

In Scotland, Edie meets Johnny (Kevin Guthrie) and their unusual relationship provides laughs, tension, and poignancy – Sheila Hancock has never lost her comedic timing and the close-ups of her wrinkled face and hands, falling over, and struggling with weakened limbs truthfully portrayed.

There’s a memorable scene where she rests and examines a leaf from a nearby bush. The close-up shows the veins on the leaf held beside the back of her hand – roots pump water and minerals to branches and leaves, the heart pumps blood through our veins to limbs… a leaf can be the sign of a new beginning or reaching maturity…

It is a beautifully filmed sequence and her smile and demeanour say she is glad to be alive and grateful to be in that place, at that time.

I’ve been fortunate to have many private moments in wonderful places of natural beauty, I too have been able to sit in silence and contemplate… this was a lovely moment in the narrative and I’m sure contributed to the film winning its two awards.

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At the start of her adventure because of a mix-up, Edie has to spend a night in Johnny’s share house. Two scenes are funny and emphasise gender and generation gap many people can relate to:

  1. She prepares for bed in a bathroom/toilet shared and neglected by the all-male, twenty-something household
  2. Leaving the next morning she has to navigate past four young men sprawled on the lounge room floor after a heavy night of drinking.

Genuine warmth and friendship develops between Edie and Johnny, who has his own relationship troubles because his girlfriend, Fiona (Amy Manson) is in the middle of negotiating a bank loan to create the biggest camping store in the north of Scotland while he feels trapped and longs to escape his job as a guide in what he considers a parochial area. He took on the job of training Edie for the climb solely for the money, thinking it would be easy because she would back out.

In an honest exchange of stories, we learn Edie’s life and how her spirit was broken by her husband who was a control freak. He estranged her from her father to ensure she forgot being ‘a wild child’ and just as she realised the marriage was not what she wanted and stood up to him, he had an almost fatal stroke. She sacrificed the next 30 years to dutifully care for him and ensure her daughter would have choices she didn’t.

The wisdom of age juxtaposed with impetuous youth exchanged like their stories.  But when Johnny is looking forward to guiding, Edie surprises him by insisting she climb Suilven alone! Wow – who is risk-taking and foolish now!?

The drama and tension speed up at this point – for all the characters – and the reunion of Johnny and Edie near the top of the mountain and him stepping back and letting her move unsteadily alone to the peak to add her small stone to the cairn, speaks volumes about their changed relationship. His happiness and joy reflected in a huge smile and glistening eyes.

Exhausted Edie stands proudly surveying the raw haunting beauty of Suilven and Lochinver and for Scottish me with roots still in my birthplace, the scenery and emotions evoked, breathtaking.

A satisfying and inspirational movie that is also thought-provoking because, barring tragedy, we are all ageing and/or watching loved-ones age, and how we navigate and cope with the process and live affects wellbeing and happiness.

There is a marvellous interlude when we think Edie will not survive – her equipment lost in a terrible storm and she is alone in the dark until she discovers a hermit’s hut – this episode has even more layers you can unpack if you like philosophy and ponder our relationship with nature and each other.

Triggered Memories of My Mountain Climbed

I replicated Edie’s journey, in a tiny way, when I was in Skye in 2017 – not that climbing The Storr (or Old Man of Storr as it is known) was near the effort of Mt Suilven but for someone who suffers acrophobia, I’m proud of my achievement.

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approaching The Storr

I’ve written about when I think my fear of heights started here and although The Storr has a path described as ‘well-constructed’, for me it was a challenge.

Looks can be deceptive, the gradient, the instability and variable surface of the ground underfoot, and the constant force of the wind the day I climbed presented a challenge too.

The Storr (ScottishGaelic: An Stòr) is a rocky hill on the Trotternish peninsula of the Isle of Skye in Scotland. The hill presents a steep rocky eastern face overlooking the Sound of Raasay, contrasting with gentler grassy slopes to the west.

The Storr is a prime example of the Trotternish landslip, the longest such feature in Great Britain. It is the type locality for the mineral gyrolite.

The area in front of the cliffs of the Storr is known as The Sanctuary. This has a number of weirdly shaped rock pinnacles, the remnants of ancient landslips.

A well-constructed path, used by many sightseers, leaves the A855 just north of Loch Leathan. It heads up through a clearfell area that was formerly a conifer plantation. Most day-trippers are content simply to wander around the Sanctuary, admiring the pinnacles and gazing up at The Storr’s eastern cliffs. Walkers can easily ascend to the summit, however, by skirting below the cliffs whilst heading north from the north end of the Sanctuary. After passing over a fence at a makeshift stile and climbing a brief steep section of loose rock, the recommended route for walkers heads north-west as far as Coire Scamadal, 1 km north of the summit, then doubles back and heads southwards along the north side, climbing towards the summit. From this route, visible breaks in the cliffs offer tempting short cuts, but these are steep, may not save time and may not be safe…

Wikipedia

The Storr is 719 metres (2,359ft) at its highest point – I reached the base of the steepest pinnacle but discretion being the better part of valour and considering I was on my own, I did not scramble around the narrow ledge to ‘touch’ the pinnacle because I feared the wind would blow me away or a panic attack make me freeze.

In fact, a few times during the climb I wondered if my travel insurance would pay out because I signed a clause saying I was not planning any unusual extreme ventures!

At the start, I took photographs of the area known as The Sanctuary and met plenty of tourists ‘scrambling’ and climbing to a vantage point for good views.

I then started the ascent in earnest, stopping plenty of times for photographs but also to chat with people coming down or going up:

  • How long did it take you?
  • Is the going rough?
  • Are there any landslides?
  • What’s the best side to tackle?
  • Where are you from?
  • Have you done this before?
  • Did you get to the Pinnacle?
  • The wind will blow you away!
  • It’s too hard!
  • It’s too dangerous!
  • I made it – just wanted a photo for Instagram… Facebook …
  • I took a Selfie to prove it I reached the top!

It was treacherous underfoot and I found it took all my concentration and physical ability to navigate some steep and slippery sections.

I met a lovely father and daughter from India but the little girl of eleven refused to be as enthusiastic about the challenge despite coaxing from her Dad.

They only climbed part of the way and were still negotiating about going further when I met them on my way down!

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Two lovely Italian girls shadowed me part of the way – perhaps thinking I was going to need assistance. We were all thumbs up and celebrating when we reached the base of the Pinnacle and through sign language and limited English, they said they admired someone of ‘my age’ for even attempting the climb!

I don’t know about Sheila Hancock in Edie but I found the descent as daunting as the climb and several times thought I was going to lose my footing. However, I did climb, Old Man of Storr and have some wonderful photographs of the view of Skye I would otherwise not have… and as you can see by my smiles it was a good feeling to have a small triumph over a lifelong fear of heights.

Edie, the movie, and Sheila Hancock, the actress – both inspirational.  I won’t be queuing up to climb Suilven when I’m 85 but I hope to achieve other dreams.

Icebreakers For Writers -Lessons That Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s in a name?
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s my effort –

Family_Resemblance.jpgWhat Made Me?
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introductions – Exercise One in Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AT HOME:

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

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

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

A Scottish Summer
Mairi Neil

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

Proust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Introductions – Exercise Two in Class

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

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

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

My effort:

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

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

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

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Reflection and Discussion Enriches the Lesson

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

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

As always, encourage writing and rewriting at home…

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

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

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

OR

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

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

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

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

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

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

See how that exercise has triggered stories for me…

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

 

 

Melbourne in Autumn – a Writer’s Delight – Especially for Poets!

‘A poem is never about one thing… you want it to be as complicated as your feelings’

 Terrance Hayes at NYT

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We farewell summer to greet autumn and I’m grateful Melbourne has distinct seasons. I’d hate to live somewhere without a changing climate for inspiration to write. (Not to be confused with climate change!) It is cliched I know, but the seasons are metaphors for our journey through life.

In Melbourne, known for having four seasons in the one day, autumn days usually begin with worrying about something as fundamental as what to wear!

Autumn
Mairi Neil

Autumn is…
a time of falling leaves,
the days often have
a cooler breeze.
Morning and night are chilly
yet Melbourne days can be hot –
you have to dress silly…

at breakfast you don
warm jumper or jacket,
by lunchtime layers removed
like unwrapping a packet.
But, dinner time requires
warm clothes once again…

unpredictable autumn weather
can be quite a pain.

This morning, as I look out the window, the house over the railway line is barely distinguishable from the filmy grey wash of sky. Faint bruises of clouds drift from the sea,  promising a dullness to the day as a breeze carries the chilly air from the foreshore to swish through open windows.  Hopefully, by lunchtime, the sun will remove the blanket of autumn haze, and blue sky will triumph.

It is Melbourne after all.

A Glimpse of Mordy Foreshore from The Bus
Mairi Neil

The sea, shades of grey, blue and green
has a line of white sails parallel to the pier
boats happy to leave the confines of the creek.
Tables and chairs outside cafes fill with families
soaking up the autumnal sun.
A  kaleidoscope of  colour dots the beach
as groups and singles lay claim to a patch of sand.
In the distance swimmers brave the chilly sea
their wet suits mimicking  dolphins
often seen offshore on warmer days.
Seagulls circle above gannets poised on rocks
myriad hungry eyes ever-watchful for a feed.

No butterflies are flitting gaily in the garden. Instead, the agapanthus droops and die, their brilliant purple flower head replaced by a crinkled fawn and faded green petals nursing tiny brown seeds, ready to drop and hide until spring. The wind is not strong enough to whip fallen leaves and other debris to skitter along the street like children let loose in a playground.

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Autumn Acrostic

Mairi Neil

Leaves die and fall in autumn
Each work of art farewelled
And as the trees become bare and
Very sad through winter days
Early buds herald the onset of
Spring and promise new life!

An  Indian Myna sighs and whistles in triumph from among the Banksia enticing mates to land. A juvenile Magpie declares to the world, in happy squeals, that he now hunts and fends for himself.   While his parents perch proudly on the overhead wires chortling and singing his praises, he makes considered stabs at the earth in a steady sweep of the nature strip.

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A single Blue Moon rose brightens my verandah, and I focus on its delicate beauty,  ignoring the scabbing paint that needs renewing and the couch grass to be removed before it chokes the flowerbeds. At least the geraniums splash a red, white and pink welcome to the constant stream of passersby on their way to the station or shops.

Autumn Chores
Mairi Neil
A surprising spring-like day in autumn Melbourne
finds me on my knees, apologising to weeds
pulled from their cosy beds.
Recalcitrant couch grass trembles at my curses,
muscles ache as each tug trails tentacles,
loosened from their choking grip on tender plant roots.
Perspiration weeps and eyes sting, but
I acknowledge passersby who pause to
compliment the beauty of freed flora and
inhale the wafting perfume of rosemary,
admiring white daisies guarding the mailbox.
A baby wattlebird swoops onto the
orange grevillea victoriae for its daily feed
joyful satisfaction declared with distinctive bark.
This rewarding distraction reminds me
to ease aching knees, massage throbbing back
and return indoors for yet another cuppa!

The leaves of the wattle tree in the right spirit of autumn, are beginning to turn yellow and drop, reminding me of a children’s poem I wrote to explain to my daughters about “Fall”:

Autumn Leaves

Mairi Neil

Colourful autumn leaves are falling
they carpet my lawn so green
the fairies have been at play again
silent and unseen.
They’ve climbed or flown into the trees
and selected a leaf for transport,
on their magic carpets they’ve race around
until too exhausted to cavort.
When gentle moonlight politely gives way
to the brightness of dawning sun
the leafy vehicles will be discarded…
until darkness permits more fun.

Despite the formidable reputation of Scotland’s weather, my early childhood is filled with memories of playing outside, especially during the long summer school holidays in July-August, but even at other times during the year. Autumn days in the northern hemisphere, as I’ve mentioned before, were taken up practising for Halloween and Guy Fawkes’ night. I’ve written about Guising and Galoshens, published here and about collecting  ‘pennies for the guy’.

I recall more time spent playing hopscotch, skipping, tramping over the fields and hills among the heather (corny as that sounds) than anything else. We also played British Bulldog and the robust Relievers – boisterous games, which certainly kept us fit as well as warm.

We performed impromptu plays for each other, along with the regular games of Cowboys and Indians and Robin Hood and his Merry Men, which reflected the influence of the fledgeling British television industry in the 50s and 60s.

The yet to be developed, and newly established backyards and front gardens of the houses in the new Braeside development took on many personas.  Indian badlands, seas populated by Captain Pugwash and his inept pirates, Sherwood Forest, Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, Colditz prisoner of war camp, and many other land or seascapes from island to a desert.

Locations and scenarios limited only by our fertile and stimulated imaginations fed on books, comics, television and radio.

The first couple of years in Australia we transplanted many of these games, revelling in much kinder weather. We could play outside for most of the year – no need to hibernate from winter snow.

All those childhood hours, playing outside in different continents, provide wonderful memories.

Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”

Marthe Troly-Curtin

Write and Share your Story

We are influenced by everything we have experienced in our lives and many in each generation experience similar things, therefore it’s natural there’s often a familiarity about stories. However, as I’ve discovered in my classes, most people will have stories from childhood or another period of life that can be shared in an original way, if written from a personal perspective including details and their reflections. 

AUTUMN
Mairi Neil

Autumn… a time to enjoy
Clocks altered to give
An extra hour snuggled beneath the doona

Autumn… a still warm season
Days pretending summer still lives
Walks in the park crunch leaves underfoot

Autumn… a time of colour
Rainbows drop from trees
Vibrant flowers play peek-a-boo through fences

Autumn… a season to pause
Contemplate winter’s chill
Prepare body and soul with warming soups

Autumn… a time of contemplation
Remembering Easter sacrifice and ANZAC
Courage and Faith, admirable human qualities.

Autumn in Melbourne is a time of reflection for many people. It coincides with Easter, the most important Christian festival, and the one celebrated with the greatest joy.

I was brought up in a Christian household and have many happy memories participating in rituals that gave meaning to our beliefs and practices.

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I never knew about the Easter Bunny until we came to Australia, nor did I consider the giving of chocolate eggs as the most important part of the celebration.  I no longer attend church, but still, value and respect the rituals and beliefs inherited from my parents.  I try to avoid the rampant consumerism around Easter that appears to have become the norm just as I avoid the over-the-top materialism that has transformed Christmas.

In Scotland, and for many years here in Australia, we painted boiled eggs and rolled them down a hillside, the winner being the family member whose egg survived with the least cracks. This ritual (I think!) based on the stone rolled away from the tomb where the body of Jesus had been placed.

However, the most important part of the tradition being family get-togethers, sharing a meal and enjoying hot cross buns and each other’s company. There was also Pancake (Shrove)Tuesday, which was a treat because Mum was a pancake-maker supremo.  All genuinely happy times.

As children, we received a chocolate egg or a selection box of chocolate bars to enjoy on the school break that coincided with Easter, and when my children were young, this tradition continued. Many family traditions, including those at Easter, have altered or been abandoned after the loss of my parents, and changing family dynamics over the years with siblings growing older and the lives of our children diversifying.

Such is life, which is why recording memoried by writing or with photographs important for family history.

Perhaps future grandchildren may revive old traditions (with Fair Trade chocolate and Free Range eggs of course…), or create new ones. As the truism suggests – the one thing constant in life is change!

Sister Cate's quilt block

Autumn hosts Australia’s commemoration of WWI on ANZAC Day. A special celebration in 2015 because it is 100 years since the landing on the Turkish beaches of Gallipoli. ANZAC Day a ritual we only discovered when we migrated here in 1962.

There is a family link because one of Dad’s Australian ancestors enlisted and went to Gallipoli.  George Alexander McInnes, only 19 years old when he died of enteric fever, six months after joining the Australian Imperial Force, raised in Williamstown. He is buried in Chatby Military Cemetery, Alexandria, Egypt.

My sister Cate (Catriona), a talented quilter, created the “Lest We Forget” block pictured above. It was chosen as one of the 100 finalists for the particular display at the Australasian Quilt Convention this April in Melbourne. The entries, along with their 100-word stories will tour Australia.

Postcards from Gallipoli
Mairi Neil

He survived the assault on Gallipoli
to die an unheroic death
from ‘enteric fever’ in Alexandria.
Weak, miserable, hungry and alone,
the tent hospital overcrowded,
too few nurses overwhelmed.
Our family’s Aussie digger
buried in foreign fields.
His working class parents too poor
to visit his grave
and the body count too high
to return him home.
A nineteen year old larrikin
eldest son farewelled,
a rabbit skin vest, Holy Bible,
and pipe welcomed home.
His war brief,
like his life.
Postcards ‘from the trenches’
sent love to family and friends
missing home and wishing for peace.
Passed down through generations,
the neatly pencilled sentences
hint at the man he could have been.
A great uncle I never knew.
Each ANZAC Day I think of
George Alexander McInnes
and the thousands like him,
acknowledge the debt owed
to previous generations
for sacrifice, trauma, and loss.
But, in the remembering there is
no forgetting the madness
and futility that is war.

To end on a happier note – form poetry is fun to try and with traditional Japanese haiku indicating the season is an expected feature. However, like everything else tradition does not always win and expectations not always achievable.

Autumn Haiku

Mairi Neil

The sea melds with sky
dark shore dreams of light caress
and whimsy clouds flee

Holidays at last!
slippery stairs to the sea
lead to splashing fun

The artist’s eye rare
Vincent’s Starry Starry Night
a gift to the world

What differences do you see when the seasons change? Do you have rituals you follow? Have you written about them? Why not start now!

Writing Family History and Life Stories as Literary Non-Fiction

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Rain batters the window as the white fluffy cumulus clouds, gathering and growing all day, decide to join together and release their load. A thunderclap booms and rumbles and a spectacular flash of lightning paints a jagged design across the sky. Nine-year-old Mary Jane huddles closer. ‘I’m not scared Mum, but that was loud, wasn’t it?’ She relaxes into my arms as I murmur, ’you’re safe here, darling,’ and I rest my chin lightly on her auburn head and close my eyes. An image appears of Dad lying comatose in his bed at Maroondah Hospital, Croydon.

False teeth awkwardly protrude from slack-jawed mouth; frail body shrunken and vulnerable. Only with concentration can I detect the almost imperceptible movement of his chest, and as trembling hands scrabble at the cotton bed sheet, I stop holding my breath; release an audible sigh of relief. My nose twitches at the sickly sweet smell from his dry lips and open mouth — it’s the residue of medication, not the smell of death – yet.

Several tears seep from the corners of my eyes, to lie hot and wet on winter-pale cheeks. I shake off the memory of our visit today and stare at the cluster of family photographs atop the maple entertainment unit. Maroondah Hospital, an hour’s drive, but also a world away from my comfortable reality. John’s culinary efforts fill the house with aromatic herbs and spices and in-between the rhythmic chop of vegetables, I hear the breathless tinkle of Anne’s voice, embellishing Year 7 tales.

More thunder rolls, this time far into the distance, but lightning flares again and a barrage of tiny hailstones drum a tattoo on the windowpane. A large shudder reminds me of Mary Jane’s need for reassurance and as I rub her back gently, subliminal flashes of her colicky babyhood make me smile; the nights pacing the floor to ease her pain. A surge of tenderness tightens my hold and I whisper, ‘I love you.’ My eyes ache with unshed tears as outside Mother Nature wails and weeps, reminiscent of a tempestuous night in another country… another time… a world away from Mordialloc.

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It’s Saturday evening at 35 Davaar Road, in 1961 Scotland. The film How Green Was My Valley broadcast on television for family viewing. The youngest siblings, Alistair (5) and Rita (2) are already in bed, but at eight-years-old, along with George (9), Iain (10) and Catriona (12), I’m allowed to stay up later than the usual 7.30pm ‘lights out’ rule of the school week.

Saturday night is ‘treat’ night. Dad has been paid on Friday and the budget allows a choice of favourite chocolate from the ‘Tali’ van coasting the neighbourhood playing Greensleeves. The mobile shop called the ‘Tali’ van and the driver referred to as ‘Tony’ regardless of his real name.

Ice-cream first introduced to Scotland by waves of Italian migrants in the early twentieth century. Most of the cafes, fish and chip shops, ice cream vans and restaurants established or owned by Italian families: Drivandi, Nardini, Capaldi, Spiteri. However, pizza and pasta have still not replaced the popular ‘fish supper’ in most Scottish homes. Italian families have lived in Greenock and surrounding districts for generations and speak with broad Scottish accents, but retain much of their Italian culture, especially Roman Catholicism.

Lyons_Maid_Ice_Cream_Van    six of us

Allowed to stay up late to watch the Saturday Night Movie on television, we munch on chocolate (Cadbury’s Flake my choice of delicacy) and sprawl on the dark green and faded gold sofa; its tired cloth worn thin from thirty years of service. Wide sofa arms make great horse rides to watch The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid after school and the hard horsehair stuffed cushions become formidable weapons in sibling squabbles.

This lounge suite inherited from Dad’s family home takes up most of the spacious living room, just as it did in 2 George Square, the tenement where I was born. A Radio Rental television the only new item of furniture, ‘standing out like a sore thumb’ in my Irish mother’s opinion, alongside other items from George Square: a 1900 rosewood china cabinet, a 1950s radiogram and 1930s walnut bed-cabinet, the drawers of which store spare bedclothes wrapped in tissue paper, and a home for Iain’s hamster when it makes one of its many escapes from his fireside cage.

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We ‘flitted’ to Davaar Road when I was three years old, a successful privately negotiated house swap with a couple who wanted to move into the centre of the town. Mum and Dad were thrilled at the move to the new estate of Corporation houses at Braeside, the result of a building boom filling the twenty-years of demand for houses, to replace the hundreds of homes lost during the Greenock Blitz. The new houses provide front and back gardens to cultivate flowers and vegetables, room for pets, a washing line with poles, and grassy playing space. Luxury!

Three large bedrooms upstairs provide room for an expanding family (ours increased by two); plus separate bathroom and toilet. Downstairs, a welcoming vestibule leads to a kitchen, dinette and living room, plus an inside coal bunker in the back lobby. A profound and welcome change from the two rooms, kitchen and bathroom shared in George Square with Dad’s father and unmarried sister, Mary. Even although we were better off than the majority of Scotland’s population living in tenement flats of either one room and kitchen houses or ‘single-ends’ (a single room with a communal toilet and bathroom at the end of the hall), the cramped conditions of George Square meant Mum and Dad couldn’t wait to move out.

The bed-cabinet, Aunt Mary’s bed for years in George Square and latterly shared with Catriona, now only used at New Year when the family came to stay to celebrate Hogmanay. The ‘hole-in-the-wall’ bed, a unique Scottish adaptation to alleviate overcrowding, not missed either. Papa slept in this bed set in the wall cavity in the kitchen, which may have contributed to his deteriorating health. Research shows it caused shocking health problems, particularly respiratory disease. Poor housing, poverty, and ill health — the struggle for men to make ‘a living-wage’— a common story in a capitalist society and borne out by statistics. Most Clydeside families watching How Green Was My Valley empathising with the characters’ lives and struggles.

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Despite the limitations of black and white technology, which realistically depicts the bleakness of the lives of Welsh coal miners in the years between the first and second world wars, the film reveals the magnificent grandeur of the Welsh valleys. The story unfolds of a little boy growing up in a large caring family. His father comes home covered in black dust after a physically demanding day down the coal mines. My father comes home covered in black dust after a physically demanding day shovelling coal and driving steam trains as a locomotive driver. he works hard to support our big family, which for a long time included his father and sister.

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The film on the BBC is free from the advertisements that irritate my parents, and for once, Mum is happy our eyes are ‘glued to the screen’. However, I’m devastated when the father dies in the film. Overcome with sadness, sitting on Dad’s lap, the privileged throne for the youngest in the room, I sob into his shoulder. Grateful for the large man’s handkerchief he extracts from his trouser pocket, I give ‘a big blow’ at his suggestion and snuggle into his strong arms trying to imagine what life would be like if he died. A memory stirs of our first year at Braeside. The sadness of Aunt Mary’s long illness and death; followed a few months later by my Papa’s stroke and death. I don’t want life to be like that and cling to Dad’s woollen pullover to anchor him to me forever.

The living room cosy from the embers of a glowing coal fire and the subdued light of a standard lamp, but a November gale rages outside, a fitting backdrop to the tragedy witnessed on the television and mirroring my mood. Mum leaves Dad to console me and heads to the kitchen to prepare a bedtime Bovril. Dad suggests a piggyback up the stairs to bed, in a ploy to stem the flow of tears. Attempts by the others to ‘jolly me up’ abandoned immediately to race ahead in noisy competition. Iain piggy-backs George with a giggling Catriona as helper-cum- boss.

Instead of taking me straight to bed, Dad pauses on the landing at the top of the stairs. He thinks I’m shuddering and scared of the thunder and pulls back the pink floral curtains from the window. ‘Look, love, don’t be frightened. You’re safe inside. The storm is moving back out to sea.’

My hazel eyes stare at the window watching our breath steam the glass. I can just see the dramatic dance being played out over the tiled rooftops of neighbouring houses and across the heather clad hills. Shredded black capes of clouds flap across the sky driving icy rain to sparkle like crystals while bouncing off roof tiles and tree branches stripped bare of leaves.

Suddenly, as if by magic the wind runs out of puff; the rain eases. Supported by Dad’s strong arms, I caress the soft smoothness of his neck with my cheek; let eyelashes gently scrape his ears and feel his hair tickle my nose. Safe and consumed with a powerful love I breathe in the familiar fresh soaped skin, hair faintly Brylcreamed; a shirt collar impregnated with his perspiration. He smells so alive that the fear of losing him recedes.

His soft voice explains that lightning causes thunder. He talks about extreme heat, expansion, shock and sound waves, reminds me to read again the book What is Weather that I won for being first in my class at Ravenscraig Primary School. However, this is not school and staring into the darkness, I see thick, menacing, black clouds hiding the moon and stars. The foggy window’s tear-streaked glass shares my sorrow. I shiver, unsure whether the shadow hovering by the street lamp is a bat. I cling to Dad’s strong back and whisper, ‘I love you Dad. Don’t ever go away.’

With a surprise twirl, I’m swung around to sit on the windowsill, cold glass pressed against my back; transfixed by Dad’s dark brown eyes as he explains, ‘every living thing has a life cycle… I have to die one day darling.’ My horrified face crumples. He tries a joke. ‘If nobody died the world would be very crowded – eight in the bed everywhere, every day.’

He’s trying humour by recalling our special Sundays as a family. Sunday, the only day he doesn’t go to Ladyburn Depot to work for British Railways. The Sabbath important: we must rest, just as God rested on the seventh day after creating the world. For years, Dad has refused the lucrative double time he could earn by working on a Sunday. He swaps shifts with others so that he can honour his commitment to God, St Ninian’s Church, and family.

On Sunday mornings, we dive into Mum and Dad’s double bed for a rough and tumble, a tickle, and games such as I Spy and my Aunt Jane Went On Holiday. When it’s time to get up to prepare for church Dad sings, ‘There’s eight in the bed and the little one said,’ and baby Rita chants ‘roll over’. Then we all sing, ‘and we all roll over and one fell out,’ and of course the first one out is Mum as our raucous fun continues.

Down the stairs Mum pads, to light the coal fire, set the porridge on the gas stove, fold our underwear into the linen press to warm against the hot water pipes, set the Formica table for breakfast and buff our leather shoes lined up at the back door. The weekly ritual to be in our Sunday best, a triumph of organisation with only one bathroom and toilet to share, yet we make the nine o’clock family service at St. Ninian’s — and are never late – despite the local Church of Scotland where Dad is an Elder and Superintendent of the Sunday School, being a good half hour walk away. Our attendance records an amazing feat of achievement only rivalled by Mum’s similar success shepherding us out the door, on school days.

Mum’s nurturing taken for granted. It’s years before we reflect on how she was able to function on only a few hours sleep, rising with Dad’s soul-destroying shifts to ‘see him out’ and staying up ‘to see him safely home,’ while coping with the demands of motherhood, housekeeping routines and all the unexpected trials and tribulations of caring for in-laws as well as our big family.

In the kitchen, Mum clatters dishes, stirs pots and feeds the toaster with a loaf of bread, while the singing continues, until Dad and Rita are the last downstairs. A joyful family tradition, but the remembering only emphasises what a loss Dad’s death will be. I sniff and stifle a sob. Dad realises his mistake and tries another tack.  ‘I won’t be alone, Mairi. I’ll be with Jesus in Heaven and your Papa and Mamie will be there too.’

Shattered, the tears flood as if someone turned on a tap. I don’t want to be left lonely and sad like the boy in the movie. I don’t want to be reminded that people you love disappear. My chest heaves with wracking sobs. I’m conscious of moonlight reflecting off George’s glasses as he peeps from behind the bedroom door he has pushed ajar to see what’s going on.

The pain of my heart beating so fast it blocks my throat makes it hard to swallow. Red eyes ache as if full of grit; I rub my face into Dad’s shoulder transferring tears and snot, but he doesn’t mind. I want to bury myself beneath the blankets of the three-quarter bed I share with Catriona; forget the film, forget the storm, forget Dad’s attempts at making me feel better. Catriona doesn’t like me on her side of the bed, but perhaps tonight she’ll let me cuddle into her back…

‘Are you okay, Mum?’ Mary Jane places a tiny hand on my chest and pats it gently. Her other hand dabs at my tears with a tissue.  ‘Are you thinking of Papa?’ Her sympathy reflects an intuitive perception beyond her years.

These last few months have seen Dad deteriorate physically and mentally. At 76 years old, he’s a comparatively young man, in a society where we are being told seventy is the new sixty. However, an inexplicable, inexorable, inexpiable struggle with dementia is faced daily and I revisit the fear and pain of that long ago night each time a piece of music, a cooking smell, a photograph, a snatch of conversation conjures vivid images as if burnt into memory with a branding iron. Memories of a strong loving dad, not the shell of a man I visit in hospital or the nursing home where he resides and where I visit my future – perhaps. None of us has a crystal ball or knows how we’ll age!

The storm eases and the grandfather clock in the hall chimes seven o’clock. ‘Yes darling, I think about Papa all the time.’

The storm is over. Mary Jane eases from my grip. She kisses me again and notes my tear-stained face with concern. ‘I’m always thinking of Papa,’ I whisper.  She wraps her nine-year-old arms around my shoulders and buries her head into my neck, squeezing as tightly as she can.

‘I love you, Mum; I’m sorry about Papa. I wish he was safe with Jesus.’ My body wilts and I unashamedly sob just as I did all those decades ago.

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Friday 13th – Lucky For Me that Memories are Made of Love

“The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them — words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.”

Stephen King, Different Seasons

Friday 13th, unlucky for some, but today, March 13, it is my Dad’s birthday. If he’d lived he would be 93 and would be expecting a Tattslotto ticket in at least one of his birthday cards because 13 was his lucky number.

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Dad had 13 letters in his name – George Taylor McInnes. He was born on the 13th March 1922; the thirteenth child in his family. I grew up with those statistics being recited regularly, but knew from my Irish Mother that the rest of us would not be so lucky with the number!

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In fact, one Christmas Day, when Mum realised there would be 13 around the table, we had to telephone friends until eventually my young sister, Rita, found someone able to come at short notice, otherwise Mum would have sat in the kitchen eating her meal alone. Rita’s friend Louise saved the day and enjoyed two Christmas dinners.

Irish Mum had other superstitions to avoid disaster:

  • never put an umbrella up in the house,
  • don’t put new shoes on the table,
  • if you spill salt, throw a pinch over your left shoulder,
  • an itchy palm means you will come into money,
  • an itchy, hot ear means someone is speaking about you and if you think of a number and apply it to the alphabet that’s the initials of the person,
  • if you break a mirror expect seven years bad luck!

Other beliefs were crossing the palm of any baby you meet with silver (Mum had a store of 50 cent pieces for just such an occasion), inserting a coin if you give a purse or handbag as a present, and exchanging a coin if you ever receive a present of a knife or anything else that has a sharp edge – this even applies to brooches. And of course the well-known ‘must haves’ for a bride ‘something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.’

Dad was not superstitious, but indulged Mum, discretion being the better part of valour! He died in 2005 and I think of him every day and know that he loved me and my brothers and sisters unconditionally. He had his flaws, but was a good father and how I wish I could pick up the phone tomorrow and wish him a  happy birthday!

I gather together the dreams, fantasies, experiences that preoccupied me as a girl, that stay with me and appear and reappear in different shapes and forms in all my work. Without telling everything that happened, they document all that remains most vivid.

Bell Hooks

A Pause in Time

A blast of night air penetrates the cocooned warmth of the bed. I shiver and pull at the dishevelled blankets, then roll over to seek comfort from my older sister, Catriona, who sleeps undisturbed in the three-quarter sized bed we share. Long black ringlets cover her face except for a gleaming white pebble chin atop snugly tucked blankets.

I sneak another peek at the window. The yellowy-green chrysanthemums on the curtains still bear a lingering resemblance to the leering gargoyles of the nightmare that woke me up. Shadows cast by the dying moonlight and the glowing street lamp, create menacing monsters of the bedroom furniture.

Fear fuels my urgent whisper, ‘Treena, Treena please wake up,’ but the ramrod figure doesn’t respond. Despite the thudding of my heart, a murmur of familiar voices drifts through the partly open bedroom door and without hesitation, I scramble out of bed, dash for the doorway and slip through the narrow opening.

A short scurry to the staircase and my hand finds the comfort of the polished bannister. A filtered strip of moonlight from the landing window beams torch-like on the carpeted stairway. I descend on tiptoe, avoiding the stairs that creak, until the smell of cooking and promised warmth seeping from the kitchen, spurs a race to the bottom.

The icy coldness of the waxed linoleum of the lobby floor ends my flight and has me gasping in shock. If only slippers could magically appear. Hand-me-down floppiness unsuitable for silent speed, but so necessary as another Scottish winter day begins.

Breathlessly quivering, I gently twist the kitchen doorknob and push, squinting at the harsh incandescence of the naked light bulb, suspended from the whitewashed ceiling. Mum materialises beside the stove, stirring porridge in a large aluminium pot. Dad sits nearby, his folded arms resting on the grey Formica table; his newly scrubbed face ghostlike above soot-stained railway overalls. He senses my presence and stops mid-sentence, turning toward the cold breeze I’ve let in from the hall.

Our eyes meet. Smiles a mirror match. ‘Come into the warmth little…

Interrupting another sentence, I catapult into outstretched arms; burrow deep within his loving hug. Snug, safe, relaxed – not a monster in sight. Coal dust mingled with the distinctive smell of Lifebuoy soap, teases my nostrils. Rough stubble and wiry moustache scratched soft six-year-old skin.

With a knowing smile and without comment, Mum ladles porridge onto another plate. I bask in the joy of this attention; dip my spoon into Dad’s cup of Carnation Milk…

All too soon, the ceiling light vibrates as slamming doors, running feet and the flushing of the toilet, announce my three brothers are awake. Uneven thuds and bumps herald the usual morning competition as the boys race downstairs. A prolonged wail from baby Rita sends Mum hurrying up to collect the toddler.  Catriona still sleeps soundly.

Dad whispers, ‘here come the rest of the clan,’ and reluctantly places me on a nearby chair. Mum returns and so begins the breakfast melee that so enthralled Catriona’s friend when she visited. ‘Breakfast at your house is like a party,’ Wendy declared wide-eyed and envious.

I suppose it seemed like that to outsiders when the eight of us crowded around the table to eat porridge, toast and marmalade, or if it was the weekend, slice (Scottish sausage), egg and tattie (potato) scones. Unlike my parents’ Victorian upbringing when children were to ‘be seen and not heard,’ our mealtimes mostly noisy and cheerful affairs whether breakfast or supper. My parents’ mantra ‘don’t speak with your mouth full’ often ignored.

Although Irish, my mother cooked porridge the traditional Scottish way – soaking the steel-cut oats in water overnight and boiling in the morning, stirring with a wooden spoon to avoid lumps, and clockwise to prevent bad luck! The only additive, a sprinkling of salt.

I remember the shock of discovering on the migrant ship to Australia in November 1962 that others put sugar on their porridge! On P & O’s SS Orion other choices were tastier, the ‘snap crackle and pop’ of Kellog’s Rice Crispies and the crunch of Cornflakes. Liberally spread with cold milk and sugar, breakfast cereal became an enticing alternative when we arrived to live in a scorching Australian summer. However, toast spread with Robertson’s Golden Shred Marmalade or Mum’s homemade bramble (blackberry) jam consumed a loaf of bread regardless of the continent! The Portuguese gave English the word

Liberally spread with cold milk and sugar, breakfast cereal became an enticing alternative when we arrived to live in a scorching Australian summer. However, toast spread with Robertson’s Golden Shred Marmalade or Mum’s homemade bramble (blackberry) jam consumed a loaf of bread regardless of the continent!

The Portuguese gave English the word marmelada and shiploads of the fruit-based jelly. The first imports considered a digestive or dessert and eaten at supper. By the 18th century, tea and toast with marmalade became the standard Scottish breakfast with Scottish manufacturers favouring bitter Seville oranges and creating their own recipes. I can remember Mum searching the supermarket shelves in Australia to buy the imported tangy Scottish marmalade she loved. Some of us, however, acquired a taste for the Aussie staple of yeast laden Vegemite with breakfast toast. Nutritionists insist breakfast is the most important meal of the day and I can still hear my mother’s voice admonishing us not to leave the house ‘on an empty stomach’.

She regaled us with the tale of my Scottish papa who in the ‘Hungry 30s’ had only a spoonful of jam to ‘break his fast’. My parents struggled financially most of their working lives but I never experienced real hunger, a testimony to their hard work, good household management, and Mum’s eye for a bargain ‘eking out’ meat, and seasonal fruit and vegetables bought on special. Childhood meals consisted of plain food, with breakfast the plainest meal of all, only varied at weekends or holidays if our much-frazzled mother had the time and energy.

Dad, always diligent, tried to do his best for the family – at one stage as a new migrant, working three jobs to ensure our quality of life. The pressure to always provide for our big family must have been difficult, but he never shirked the responsibility. A shift worker for most of his working life, his body clock had to adjust and adapt to mealtimes and sleep patterns that affected his health – no doubt there were times when he went to work exhausted yet he contributed to church and community life, was active politically and in the trade union movement. When he worked for British Rail in Scotland, he’d walk 5 miles in the snow to get to Ladyburn Depot to drive the first train out, and a similar walk home when he finished on the last shift.

All his life Dad showed a work ethic not many people can rival, but more importantly he was my mentor in so many ways. Full of wisdom, patience and encouragement, he also had a keen sense of humour and sharp wit. Some of the best memories I have are of family mealtime discussions and riotous practical jokes and laughter. I count myself very lucky indeed!

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A Sense of Summer Triggered by Your Nose!

Summer will end soon enough, and childhood as well.

George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

The last few weeks in class we have been discussing summer and writing to prompts. We discussed the sensory detail of smell, one often left out of writing, yet the sense that is usually the best trigger for memory.

We live in a sensory-rich world and our five senses should not be left out of our writing if we want to evoke a reaction and engage readers. In class, we brainstorm and list ideas for stories and then write whatever imagination and memory dictate.

Grilled meat – BBQ stories – bushfire experience
Citronella candles, mosquito coils – camping escapade
Chlorine, salt, mud – water adventures – seaside, river, pool, garden
Car smells – road trip
Flowers, trees, cut grass – garden and park settings
Does dust smell? – drought, hay fever

Stories set in northern or southern hemisphere, or both…

Summer in Scotland – gardens, hedgerows and fields displaying colourful wildflowers in shades of purple, white and yellow: bluebells, thistles, heather, daisies, dandelions and buttercups. A handful picked for Mum, who placed them on the kitchen windowsill in a jam jar vase.

In the 1950s, The Davaar Road gang as we were called, played outside until mums grew hoarse calling us inside for our tea, bath and bed. The long days seemed endless because of Scotland’s close proximity to the North Pole – it could be nearing midnight and yet seem like day, to be followed by a prolonged, breathtaking gloaming (twilight). Something we sorely missed when we migrated to Australia.

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me with the Docherty girls in the background wearing their mum’s shoes!

 

The area where we lived, Braeside in Greenock, aptly named because the housing scheme rose up the side of a hillside sandwiched between hills towards Loch Thom and hills overlooking Gourock. We’d climb the brae opposite our house to hunt for blackberries, ignoring thorns and nettles that tore at tender skin. The purpose of the expeditions – to fill Mum’s biggest saucepan so that she could make her bramble jam and bramble jelly. When we were old enough she let us stir the pot and I’d inhale the wonderful aroma as well as be fascinated as she used a nylon bag to strain the fruit pulp. The whole house smelled sweet and fruity, and the thought of homemade steamed puddings, jam rolls, fairy cakes and lovely jam sandwiches (jeely pieces) made any scratched arms, skint knees or bee stings worthwhile.

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Most bumblebees and wasps were repelled as we clutched buckets, old pots, jam jars – any available receptacle – and filled them with the delicious, juicy bunches gathered from wild bushes. Of course, our purple stained faces and fingers testimony that many of the berries were eaten before we got home. How shocked we were when we arrived in Croydon, Australia to large tracts of land sporting lots of blackberry bushes, but the fruit off limits because the plants were considered toxic weeds and sprayed regularly!

In Scotland, if we weren’t collecting brambles we were playing ball games like rounders or lying on dewy, soft grass, the smell of the River Clyde and distant Irish Sea drifting over the brae as we made daisy chains and tested who liked butter with delicate buttercups held under chins. We giggled and made each other touch dandelions, which supposedly made you pee the bed.

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Sitting on the soft fragrant heather making daisy chains we’d slice each stalk with a fingernail making an opening big enough to poke the next daisy’s head through and continue this until a chain was long enough to be a necklace or bracelet. Glamour plus!

To determine whether a boy loved you or not, we pulled petals from the daisies one at a time, chanting ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ until the poor flower completely mangled fell to the ground. Flora vandalism!

The other pastime of picking buttercups and holding a flower under each other’s chin to witness a yellow glow was supposed to decide whether we liked butter. I don’t think anybody ever failed the test, yet we never tired of doing it.  Just as we never tired of searching for four-leaf clovers to have magical protection and good luck forever.

The dandelion, another flower we rarely picked for posies and guessing games because being seen with them was risky to your reputation! We called dandelions pee-the-beds and to be seen touching them meant you’d be accused of wetting the bed!

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The tiny yellow flower, the scourge of gardeners who regard them as weeds, but golden seas sprout in fields, parks, gardens and road verge across Scotland. Beekeepers, the only people happy about the glorious yellow carpets, because the protein-rich dandelion pollen and nectar a boon for bees. Each dandelion plant can produce 20,000 feather-light seeds, which are blown on the wind to colonise gardens in a short period of time. They thrive in nutrient-rich soil and destroy other flowers by encroaching on their habitats. No wonder gardeners get annoyed.

When in the puffball stage, we used the dandelions to tell the time – blowing the seeds into the air and chanting whatever wish we wanted and it would be granted in how many hours ‘the clock’ said.

Although classified as weeds, dandelions are also edible and can be used for cooking and medicinal purposes.The white sap from its stem said to cure warts and dandelion tea supposedly helps calm stomach aches. The plant, which is rich in potassium, zinc and calcium, also used by some herbalists to treat skin conditions, asthma, low blood pressure, poor circulation, ulcers, constipation, colds, hot flushes and has a diuretic effect when eaten. A long way from the stigma of ‘pee-the-beds’!

Only in summer did we taste ice-lollies bought from Peter’s shop, a place hosting delicious smells from jars of lollies and other goodies: musk, mint, aniseed, liquorice and other pervading sugary and syrupy smells. With money tight buying sweeties was truly a rare treat.

And as if that wasn’t magnet enough, Peter installed a jukebox that ate any spare change we could wangle from mum if we were sent for ‘a message’. I always put on Roses Are Red My Love by Bobby Vinton, a hit in 1962, or Cliff Richards’ Summer Holiday. My big sister, Cate chose Adam Faith’s What Do You Want?

Summer holidays, the time to collect firewood to build a bonfire for Guy Fawkes Night to make a guy and drag him around the neighbourhood on a bogey (homemade go-cart) yelling ‘penny for the guy’ to amass money for fireworks: Catherine Wheels, Sky Rockets, Air Bombs, Sparklers, but mainly penny bungers. Sometimes we couldn’t wait for November and the acrid smell of gunpowder in the backyard tipped off our parents we were exploding fireworks without their permission or supervision. Another custom sensibly abandoned in Australia because of the fire danger, but these pictures typical of my childhood were found in the Geoff Charles Collection.

Playful Seasons
Mairi Neil

In dewy meadow, Spring flowers bright
Buttercups bloom, a magnificent sight
While strolling upon this carpet of gold
A test is remembered from days of old
A yellow flower waved under the chin
Do you like butter, we asked with a grin.

In dewy meadow, under strong Summer sun
Childhood revisited as we have some fun
Clumps of wild daisies smile up at me
Their perfect white petals fluttering free
A bunch of daisies transformed with love
Necklace and bracelet feather soft as a dove

In dewy meadow, Autumn leaves fall
Dandelions transform into puffballs
With gentle breaths, we blow and blow
Discovering Time as spores drift like snow
One o’clock, two o’clock –– maybe three
Until a naked stem is all we can see.

In dewy meadow, Winter walks are brisk
The puddles ice over putting feet at risk
I spy a toddler wearing bright rubber boots
Splashing in puddles, not giving two hoots
A flashback to childhood appears in the rain
It’s worth wet socks to feel carefree again.

What does summer smell like to you? Put the smells in context – what memories do they trigger? Create a poem, a memoir, or story with fictional characters – have some writing fun.