Christmas Joy Not Humbug!

Mordi pier.jpg

The Twelve Days of Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the ‘Twelve days’ …

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

wild woman and christmas message

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

What would Christmas be without a wee miracle?

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

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

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

We scored a candy cane before they entered the lift!

cate with hospital volunteers

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

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

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

my pink-red rose.jpgChristmas Catch-Ups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bulleen peace park

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

 

New Acquaintances Not Forgot

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

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

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

book cover from Japan

Serendipity!

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was 24 years old and in his prime.

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

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

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

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

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

haiku - owl.jpeg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I also felt tears coming to my eyes…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

flowers in vase.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

faith verse.jpg

The Power of  Spiritual Awakening

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

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

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

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

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

haiku abandoned shell.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

John’s response, “Prove it!”

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

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

He answered, “No problem for me.”

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

The Joy of Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Hallway
Hoshino Tomihiro (February 20)

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

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

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

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

Something did not make sense…

CROWN-OF-THORNS
Hoshino Tomihiro

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

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Flowers Helped Him Bloom

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

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

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

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

CHRYSANTHEMUMS
Hoshino Tomihiro

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

COLUMBINES
Hoshino Tomihiro

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

sunflowers in vase.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love this poem he wrote  –

poem 1

and this honest observation:

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

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

Dokudami (Houttuynia)
Hoshino Tomihiro

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

Your flowers
Look just like white crosses.

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

HOUTTUYNIA CORDATA
Hoshino Tomihiro

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

A book can be the gift that keeps on giving.

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

sunset glow.jpg

Surviving, Existing, Embracing – How Would You Cope In An Australian Desert?

(Warning: Indigenous Australians are advised that some of the links from this blog include images or names of people now deceased.)

NAIDOCLogo_2018_A3_Landscape_FINAL.ai_.jpg.png

NAIDOC Week 2018 

Under the theme – Because of her, we can! – NAIDOC Week 2018 will be held nationally from Sunday 8 July and continue through to Sunday 15 July.

… Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have played – and continue to play – active and significant roles at the community, local, state and national levels… As leaders, trailblazers, politicians, activists and social change advocates, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women fought and continue to fight, for justice, equal rights, our rights to country, for law and justice, access to education, employment and to maintain and celebrate our culture, language, music and art…

They are our mothers, our elders, our grandmothers, our aunties, our sisters and our daughters… often been invisible, unsung or diminished… For at least 65,000 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have carried our dreaming stories, songlines, languages and knowledge … and enriched us as the oldest continuing culture on the planet…

Two Sisters – Ngarta And Jukuna

A True Story – Perhaps the first Autobiography written in an Aboriginal language…

In an ideal world, this book would be in school and community libraries and generate important conversations about culture, language, family relationships, and Australia’s history.

A firsthand account it provides a rare primary source of knowledge and insight into the lives of two amazing and courageous women.

We are all enriched by listening or reading with an open mind when people share their authentic, lived experience from the heart, in their own language.  Especially, when the stories are remarkably different from our own as this story.

The sisters couldn’t read or write their language Walmajarri until it was documented and translated into English by Eirlys Richards, one of the co-authors who collaborated with this book.

Eirleys and Pat Lowe, the other non-Aboriginal author are to be congratulated for recognising the importance of recording the stories, helping translate Ngarta and Jukuna’s words, encouraging the telling and persisting towards publication.

The road to publishing would not have been easy. I’ve spent most of my writing life trying to publish stories by everyday Australians in anthologies for the Mordialloc Writers’ Group and classes in community houses and appreciate the hoops to jump through to achieve a joyful result – especially with what is referred to now as ‘traditional publishing.’

This edition of Two Sisters, by the Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation 2016 and was first published by Fremantle Arts Centre Press 2004 but can be bought from www.magabala.com Email: shop@magabala.com

The book is easy to read and approximately 120 pages and packs a punch.

I guarantee it will remain in your memory! For me, even the timescale is mind-boggling. Ngarta and Jukuna came out of the desert and first had contact with white people in 1961 – the year before I arrived in Australia to live in Melbourne, one of the most developed cities in the world.

United Aborigines Mission from air 1977
An aerial view of the outback Mission 1977 giving an idea of distance

The book includes helpful sections such as pages 83-103 where the story is in Walmajarri. Another singular experience – I’ve not read a book before with the story printed in English as well as an Aboriginal language.

Also included is a Glossary of Walmajarri words and their meaning plus an excellent pronunciation guide. ( Throughout the text some of the Walmajarri words used have no definitive English equivalent because of the 23 different sounds of Walmajarri some are not found in English.)

A potted history of the backgrounds of the authors and how they met also included with helpful historical markers and notes about Aboriginal culture and several maps and photographs.

‘People who lived in the Great Sandy Desert led a distinctive way of life with their own beliefs and customs. In telling their stories, Jukuna and Ngarta took such aspects of their experience for granted, seldom seeing the need to explain what to them was obvious. Because Ngarta’s story is written in the third person, it has been possible to interweave additional information helpful to readers who don’t know the desert or its people…

For most readers there will remain a number of questions arising from both stories, not all of which can be answered with certainty… we have often had to accept that some things are unknowable…’

Pat Lowe

Eirlys moved to Fitzroy Crossing in 1967 to translate The Bible but also establish literacy and reading groups. When Jukuna and her husband Pijaji settled nearby they learnt to read and write their own language for the first time.

By 1980 Jukuna was a fluent reader, one of a small number of people who could read and write the language… her skill in writing did not develop as quickly as her reading did, probably because there was little reason for her to write.’

However, when Jukuna and Eirlys met up in the 1990s Jukuna said,

‘I have written a story about myself, will you read it?’

Eirlys ‘read an account of a young woman leaving her family in the desert to walk with her husband to the unknown country of the white people. I wondered if this might be the first autobiography written by a Walmajarri person in her language.

Two Sisters is about life in a remote area of Australia few will visit, let alone live in. Most of us are not desert or bush dwellers and if we do go there it will be with the support of guides and tourist organisations, or with the knowledge and expertise of technology.

Reading the day to day accounts of hunting animals and gathering and harvesting of plants, the walking from waterhole to waterhole, the hours of digging involved and the setting and packing up of camps is engrossing and exhausting when you imagine the miles, the terrain, the heat, the cold – and the fear!

Underlying the journey of the sisters and the last of the Walmajarri left in the desert is the story of murder and lawlessness by the criminal Manyjilyjarra brothers.

These men were from a family of outlaws, men who lived apart from other people and defied the law, who preyed on their fellows, killing without reason, abducting women and discarding them. Other men feared them, and for a long time they got away with their crimes…

… news of yet another killing reached the scattered bands. No one had the power to control the killers or bring them to puishment. They moved, uninvited into country that was not their own, and eventually they went to Walmajarri country…

This was a time of great change amongst the peoples of the desert. Most of their number had already left the sandhills. Some had chosen to migrate north or west to join relatives on the cattle and sheep stations that had been established in the more generously watered country of their neighbours. Others had been rounded up by white people and brought into settlements….

Desert society had so disintegrated that its normal laws and sanctions could no longer be enforced, and these men were able to intrude with impunity into other people’s country and to prey on the few remaining unprotected inhabitants.

Prologue, two Sisters

Ngarta Jinny Bent and Jukuna Mona Chuguna belong to the Walmajarri/Juwaliny language group. They were children when this mayhem and dislocation happened and the story of fleeing the criminals, meeting up with them and others who suffered and the gradual move north to settlements is covered in their stories.

Ngarta stayed behind with her grandmother to be one of the last to leave country.

‘In the whole of the Great Sandy desert, only a handful of widely scattered groups of people still lived in their accustomed way. Everyone else had gone. In Ngarta’s country there remained just one small band of eight souls: Ngarta, her mother and grandmother, her young brother, Pijaji’s two sisters and his second mother and grandmother…

With so few people to feed… They did not need to travel far with each season to find new stocks of food. Besides they were waiting for their relatives to come back and pick them up…’

page 31

Jilji-a sandhill
Jilji – a sandhill

The little group lived like this happily enough for a couple of years. They didn’t see anyone else in all that time and, but for the knowledge that their relatives were living on a cattle station far to the north, they might have been the last people in the world. Life went on in its age-old pattern: food gathering and hunting, drawing water, making or improvising tools, cooking, camping, firing the country, telling stories around the fire. Everything was the same, yet nothing was the same now that they were on their own.

page 34

waterholes
Searching for water depended on knowledge of where to dig and what jilas held the most or easiest water available

Enter the lawless brothers who killed her brother and beloved grandmother and speared her mother. Ngarta’s story becomes particularly harrowing when you consider she was just a child. She lived in terror and eventually fled surviving on her own for ‘a year or more’… time measured differently by her people.

So I went away on my own, in the afternoon. I went west. I took only a kana for hunting and a firestick. I walked on the grass all the way, till I got to Jarirri.’

Instead of walking on the sand, Ngarta stepped from one tuft of spinifex to another in order to leave no footprints.

She almost reached safety, within sight of Cherrabun hills but ‘… her resolve failed. For reasons she is no longer sure about, she gave up the idea of pushing on to Christmas Creek.’

‘I don’t know why I went back. maybe I was thinking about my country. Maybe I was frightened for kartiya.’ (white people)

Mining company's seismic lines in desert
Mining company’s seismic lines in the desert

…  their country stretches almost as far as the Fitzroy River to the north, but the family of these two sisters came from much further south, from the Great Sandy Desert proper, so that when the first Walmajarri people, the northern groups, were going to work on cattle stations, the southern groups were unaffected… even the bands most distant from one another were linked by marriage and consanguinity… upheavals caused by the settlers of the cattle and sheep stations filtered back along the attenuated communication lines to… the remotest parts of the desert…

Robert Menzies of whom they knew nothing, was Prime Minister when Jukuna and later Ngarta emerged from the Great Sandy Desert… much later… they first heard the word “Australia” and learned that they were not only Walmajarri, but also Australians.

Pat Lowe, contributing author in the introduction to Two Sisters

Ngarta grandmother's grinding stone 1997
Returning to country Ngarta discovered her grandmother’s grinding stone

When Jukuna tells her story she also fills in gaps about Ngarta’s and describes when they were reunited:

‘I’ll tell you about something good that happened. Pijaji and I thought our family, who we’d left in the desert, were no longer alive. So, we pushed the memory of them from our minds, and worked on the station without thinking about them very much, you can imagine my shock when my sister and sister-in-law arrived at Christmas Creek Station. When I heard the news I was overjoyed and we went over to see them and cry with them.’

I know the feeling of joy as a migrant returning to my birth country and meeting kinfolk and friends after many years of separation but there have been letters, phone calls and messages via others.

No such contact for the sisters.

That unembellished paragraph of Jukuna’s about being reunited with family thought dead and hearing their horrific tale of survival such understated stoicism!

Bridging The Cultural Divide

In a chapter titled The World of The Two Sisters, Pat Lowe contributes some helpful information to help non-Aboriginal readers understand the sisters’ stories – especially in the context of the time and reminding us of how isolated the desert dwellers were.

Books like Two Sisters show the differences in culture but also similarities in the development of humankind, the resilience of communities, the dispelling of fears and misconceptions, and adaptations necessary, the contrast between past, present and future.

Both women became artists as well as writers with their paintings exhibited in Australia and overseas. (Ngarta died in 2002)

  • Desert people did not keep track of ages in years, but as stages in life. Children described as newborn, crawling, toddling but as they got older their maturity judged on ability to hunt and the size or agility of animals caught – from small lizards to goannas and pythons, cats to foxes and dingoes. ‘The first time Ngarta killed a cat or a fox was a landmark event.’
  • A girl considered ready for marriage when her body showed signs of physical maturation – menstruation, breast development, pubic hair. Perhaps betrothed since birth to an older man she didn’t cohabit until mature enough and went to live in her husband’s camp. Her husband not allowed to have sexual relations until ‘the right time’ and such restrictions commonly observed. (Unless of course, like the marauding brothers Ngarta encountered men took women and girls and often killed them after rape.) Although Ngarta never talked about it later, she is said to have been taken as a wife by one of the men.’
  • Polygamy was normal practice, maintained by an early marriage of girls and later marriage of men. The presence of other wives, by and large, ensured the protection of the younger girls. It also contributed to complex kinship relationships and in the story, it can become quite complicated when the sisters talk of mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers so don’t read certain tracts when you’re tired! This complex extended kinship and blood relationships, of course, is why the practice of removing children from their family and country is not only outrageous and indecent on humanitarian grounds but a dangerous practice because families lost trace of bloodlines, eligibility for marriage, and ensuring appropriate behaviours and obligations observed. Aborigines will suffer the consequences of  The Stolen Generation for a long time and we must never let that shameful period be forgotten or repeated – no matter what justifications authorities use.
  • A boy’s physical development determined his readiness for going through stages of law and his rank among men and marriageability.
  • Desert people tell stories that may span years. They are not fixated with definitive time the way Europeans are and knowing the age of the sisters at particular times in the story is guesswork.
  • Widows or other grieving females hit themselves on the head with stones until they bled, there is confronting descriptions of this and wailing, tearing of clothes, painting bodies in clay – visible and visceral signs of grief shared by other cultures.
  • Desert dwellers believe in supernatural beings and spirits – some benign others dangerous. They live in hollows and waterholes can enter children and animals, can be helpful to explain good weather or destructive seasons and anything new or unusual like windmills and fences built by settlers and the various types of cattle introduced. They are not the only people to believe in the supernatural or gods that can’t be seen. Men cried when they discovered water in the tank below a windmill having never seen the structure before and always working hard digging for water, they believed evil spirits were at work.
  • Expert hunters and gatherers but living in a sometimes unforgiving environment a great part of the desert dwellers day is spent searching for and cooking food. Most of us would be in awe at their tracking and hunting capabilities and lack of waste – the wisdom of the First People to help us protect and sustain the environment should be a given. But when they first engaged with white people there were many shocks. ‘At Julia Yard, the two men found a drum of tar, used for applying to spayed cows to heal their wounds. They had never seen tar before and thinking it was some kind of food, like honey, they swallowed some of it. It burnt their throats and later they vomited.’
  • Desert and other Aboriginal people drop from their vocabulary the names of recently deceased people. They are disturbed to hear the name or be reminded of someone who is gone. The closer the relationship, the longer the taboo on the use of a name and other similar words in general vocabulary.  “Instead, people usually address and speak of one another by relationship terms, a practice that causes much tearing of hair amongst non-indigenous people trying to follow narratives and identify the actors.”

newspaper article

Epilogue – What About Justice?

The Chapter, Epilogue, became personal in a ‘six-degrees of separation’ way.

A small group of desert dwellers who had never lived under or obeyed ‘white man’s’ law appearing at a remote cattle station and killing stock was news in 1961 but because of language barriers and intense fear and distrust it was some time before teenager Ngarta’s story was listened to – and apparently ignored by authorities.

The two murderers were remanded on cattle killing charges, later reduced to ‘having been in possession of beef suspected of having been stolen,’ and fined fifty pounds or fifty days in prison.

The court case and charges absurd – how would they know about kartiya (white) law and possession or have money for fines!

Tragic too, the public outcry ‘at the perceived unfairness of the sentences’ that followed, which led to the men being soon released and having ‘a happy reunion’ with their group.

The government received written protests from such bodies as the Union of Australian Women, the Joint Railway Unions Committee, the Amalgamated Engineering Union and the Federated Miscellaneous Workers’ Union.

I’m a member of the UAW and worked for the Miscos in the 1980s.  I know these organisations considered themselves progressive and on the side of social justice.

They were at the forefront of many struggles for Aboriginal rights but I wonder if they were able to hear the real story from those desert dwellers in 1961, including the treatment of the sisters, would they still have demanded the men’s release?

The allegations that some of the children had been stolen were never followed up, or the brutal and cruel treatment Ngarta and Jukuna suffered – well not by katiya – but interestingly karma or ‘blackfella way’ seems to have worked! (Read the book…)

Two Sisters and its various chapters with perspectives, reflections and new knowledge, a fascinating read of survival, adaptation and growth. An apt book to study because the focus of this year’s NAIDOC theme is – honouring women’s contribution

BECAUSE OF HER , WE CAN!

 

A Visit to Hotel Sorrento A Must For Writers

hotel sorrento program.jpg

Last Thursday night I had the pleasurable experience of catching up with an ex-student and a current student at a performance of Hotel Sorrento at the Shirley Burke Theatre in Parkdale.

It was a dark and chilly night (notice I didn’t say stormy!) as I walked from Mordialloc to meet my fellow writers. With the portent of heavy rain in the air I admit thoughts of the sensibility of hibernation during winter crossed my mind – perhaps the bears have got it right!

However, the warmth of friendship and Scottish canniness won (supporting live theatre comes at a price, albeit a reasonable one)… and I just walked more briskly towards the golden opportunity to experience a form of creativity and writing I love, and the promise of meaningful dissections afterwards over coffee.

(One of my students, Lena –  actor/singer/writer/entertainer knew a cast member – and it was wonderful to have insights from the actor’s point of view, plus learn a little about ‘life on the road’ from a performer’s perspective.)

Hotel Sorrento returned to Shirley Burke Theatre as part of HIT Productions twenty-year anniversary tour to suburban and regional venues.  A thank you to the City of Kingston for upgrading and maintaining this great venue!

A classic and much-loved Australian story, Hotel Sorrento won several awards and strongly resonated with audiences:

  • Winner 1990 AWGIE Award – Stage Award
  • Winner 1990 NSW Premier’s Literary Award – Drama
  • Winner 1990 Green Room Award – Best Play

Richard Franklin even turned it into a film in 1995 and it has been chosen for school curriculums.

lena and me.jpg
Lena took a selfie and included yours truly.

What makes this drama so popular?

The play tells the story of the reunion of three sisters who grew up in the seaside town of Sorrento, Victoria. The “hotel” is the nickname for the family home where the verandah was a popular gathering spot for the father and his mates to drink after fishing trips.

Hilary still lives in the family home with her father, Wal and 16-year-old son, Troy. Her husband died when Troy was only six years old and she stayed in the family home, subsequently nursing her mother through cancer and now looking after her father who has a history of heart trouble.

Another sister, Pippa, an independent businesswoman, is visiting from New York and the third sister, Meg, is a successful writer, whose novel Melancholy is short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize. She returns from England with her English husband, after a ten-year absence.

When the three sisters are reunited they face the expectations and constraints of family life, not helped by the sudden death of their father, Wal. Meg’s semi-autobiographical book triggers underlying familial tensions, miscommunications and ‘unfinished business’. 

Although a play about family, the ties that bind, the strength and weakness of collective and individual memory and the importance of communicating, Hotel Sorrento is also distinctly Australian.  There are words and phrases, humour, cultural references and the exploration of the age-old rivalry with England and the perceived influence and pull of the UK regarding art and artistic endeavours. And considering the majority of Australia’s population live within 100 kilometres of the coastline, the setting is one easily identifiable to Australians and a setting we are renowned for internationally.

The play premiered on stage, almost three decades and another world away from the Australia of 2018, yet as the playwright, Hannah Rayson reflected in 2015:

Hotel Sorrento was a play I wrote very early in my writing life. I think it is structurally flawed and expresses much of my inexperience as a dramatist. I have written a lot of plays since then and got better at the craft.

But there is something about this play. I wrote it with utter love and tenderness. I had a baby during the writing process and that added to a sense of dreaminess and perfect serenity. It was a journey of the soul, and even though I now think it’s clunky in part, it’s strange because actors, directors and audiences love it. It is my most produced play. It has had hundreds of productions. And the royalty cheques from it have saved my bacon on more than one occasion. It has a certain magic that I like to think comes from the happiness in which it was written.

quoted from an Essay by Cate Kennedy 2015

shirley burke stage.jpg
Taking our seats

The audience at Parkdale agreed the play has a ‘certain magic,’ everyone laughed and applauded in the right places with interval abuzz with conversations. As is usual at these events the women outnumbered the men and I can imagine many of us were like actor/writer Kate Mulvaney who wondered what sister they identified with most!

I’m a writer from a small Australian country town who took off as far away as possible – to as many places as possible – to live and work. And one of my pieces just happened to be a (semi) ‘autobiographical’ piece. And the characters just happened to be based on my family members – their names changed. And I had also just happened to contend with a prodding press on how my family responded, and I found myself sitting at dinner tables as those very family members discussed ‘what was true and what wasn’t’.

I, like Meg, also got asked to partake in countless forums on ‘women in autobiography’ and deal with people assuming, as a female writer, that my play (legitimate, in my mind) was some form of extended ‘diary entry’, and would I ‘ever consider writing something fictional?’

And so I am Meg.

Who are you?

Are you Hilary – the broken but coping carer?

Are you Pippa – the feisty but sentimental younger sister?

Are you Wal – representing the old Australia that gets away with its violent past through its infective jingoism, embracing your own cultural stereotype?

Or Edwin – blindly intelligent and culturally bewildered?

Are you Troy – the truth-seeker and heartbreaking hope-giver?

Or maybe Dick – the belligerent, topsy-turvy patriot?

Or perhaps you are Marge – keenly entertaining them all, just trying to enjoy the art?

First published in 2014 by Currency Press as ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’.

How Do You Write  “Australian”? Is There Individual versus Cultural Identity…?

“Hotel Sorrento is a powerful new Australian play that begins as a comedy about national identity and develops into a familial drama of great poignancy and reverberation.” 

Peter Craven, The Australian

lena's friend's BIO.jpg

It is important to retain and represent whatever language and customs we have that is different from American or British productions, and not always succumb to please their audiences.

It was refreshing to hear a familiar place or lifestyle described. This pleasure captured in the opening scene as the character Marge Morrisey reads from the novel Melancholy and excitedly points out the landmarks mentioned and makes the connection that she lives where the novel is set and is seeing what the author describes…

This triggered a memory for me of taking my teenage daughters to see Candy (2006), a Heath Ledger movie set in Australia, and they commented afterwards it was wonderful to hear Aussie accents, see familiar cars and street names, and even Aussie dollars! 

There is an undeniable Australian flavour about Rayson’s play, which is part of its appeal – even if some of the cliches in the dialogue are a bit outdated and inserted for the comedy value.

It doesn’t matter that many Australians have indeed moved on from the ‘cultural cringe’ every second academic talked about in the 80s (the period span of the play) because some people still participate in cutting ‘tall poppies’ to size, and other references to feminism and sexism are sadly still very much in the news.

shirley burke stage 2.jpg
Note the ironing board on the left!

Something that Rayson has mastered throughout her writing canon is exploring truth – personal, familial, social, sexual, cultural. And nothing tells us the truth more than a mirror. Rayson uses metaphorical mirroring throughout the text of Hotel Sorrento… she layers and layers and layers each truth until it warps dizzyingly and shifts our search as a reader and a viewer. On a glassy sea, the Moynihan family gather. They argue whether to keep a sentimental painting of their town on the wall or take it down.

The three sisters – Hil, Meg and Pippa, see mirrors of themselves and images of their potential – good and bad – in the faces of each other. They see their mother in an iron – a steaming ghost still working away in the corner of the room. A brilliant representation of a female in the shadow of the 1950s Australian landscape – smoothing out the family creases whilst ageing slowly, dying relatively young, unhappy, ‘outlived by the iron’. The sisters lament their mother strangely, almost flippantly:

‘Life sucks’, says Pippa.

‘We loved him more than we ever loved her’, says Hil, referring to their father Wal, who she also said was ‘a bastard to our mother’.

‘She’d be here night after night on her own’, says Pippa. ‘Always got the rough end of the stick, our Mum…’

And this is where I shudder. I mourn for this dead woman. I’m aware of her world – I see her type amongst my own family.

Essay, by Kate Mulvany, first published as ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’ Currency Press 2014

This early scene in the kitchen (the only room of the family home shown and obviously the hub – how true is that for most families!?) connected with me.

I’m sure others in the audience remembered Julia Gillard’s famous speech pointing out Tony Abbott’s sexism and misogyny, ( his reference to women of Australia doing the ironing!) yet the Australian people chose him as Prime Minister – Rayson spot on with her observation about gender inequality.

Hotel Sorrento offers contemplation and reflection on more than just feminist talking points as well as the strong leading roles for women.

‘Who has power, how do they wield it and who suffers at the hand of it, are questions [that] always interest me,’ Rayson began. ‘So I go to the family to explore them. I understand it in a family context. I can take the audience with me on that and make the links between what we understand in our known worlds with how the tensions might express themselves politically, in a bigger national canvas.’

quoted from an Essay by Cate Kennedy 2015

The Writer’s Craft

There is so much to learn from a well-written and performed play, especially one like Hotel Sorrento, which seems to be a perennial favourite.

I’ve written before about the importance of Australian plays and their value.

Writers continually mine their life and experiences and “turn” it into a novel. Memoir and life writing are popular genres. Scripts for stage or screen adapt stories, novels, and real-life events all the time.

Hotel Sorrento poses interesting discussion points and challenges the notion of ‘truth’ in writing a story. Who owns a story if you are including family history or biographical content? What are the writer’s responsibilities? Should authenticity be compromised?

Some writers, like the character Meg, insist they have written fiction because they have changed names or tinkered with “the truth” and like Meg, may be shocked that instead of accolades they are accused of a lack of integrity because they used family memories for personal gain.

Family or friends may be resentful of the use of their history, or they may be interested in delving into the past, some may accept the author’s interpretation or perspective, others may be angry or resentful.

  • How accurate is your memory – is all memoir really creative non-fiction?
  • Do women write differently to men?

Dialogue is crucial to a play and how the story is ‘told,’ as well as the actions of characters. If a writer can master the art of dialogue, short stories and novels will be much more interesting and memorable.

Pacing and building tension important to keep the audience engaged, just as it is important in the written word to keep pages turning.

In most scenes of this play, there are only two characters talking and we gradually not only learn their backstory, the current position but begin to consider different viewpoints and piece together ‘the big picture’. The structure works well.

Character is important to story – a character must be believable, we have to be invested in their welfare or at least care what they do or say. We can love or hate them but they must engage us.

Hotel Sorrento has an interesting cast of characters and as mentioned before it is easy to identify with one of them, especially if you have siblings. The three sisters all come from the same working-class Australian background but their lives have moved in different directions with Pippa and Meg creating a life outside Australia.

The character Dick is a journalist – a different kind of writer to novelist Meg – and his strong patriotic views place him at loggerheads with Meg regarding Australian culture.

Marge, an artist and resident of Sorrento identifies with the character in the novel who represents Hilary and the novel reawakens her passion for Sorrento and her art, giving her confidence to move from ‘watercolours to oils’.

She is an observer and functions like the Greek chorus, providing an outsider’s perspective. It is fitting she explains to Dick how appropriate the novel’s title is considering the subject matter and that melancholy is not depression. She understands and empathises with the author’s sad yearning for the Sorrento of her childhood.

The father of the sisters, Wal and Meg’s English husband, Edwin provide most of the comedy and are almost caricatures of the quintessential larrikin Aussie and refined Englishman but are more nuanced especially with their interaction with the sea (which acts as a character).

A ‘cliff-hanger’ just before the interval comes as a shock and throughout the play, there is intrigue regarding the death of Troy’s father and his relationship with Pippa and Meg as well as Hilary.

The scenes with family members explore their relationship ‘issues’ and these are evenly juxtaposed with scenes exploring cultural identity through the characters of artist Marge and journalist Dick.

The tension palpable when they all come together for lunch in a scene that brings conflicting views to an explosive head.

There is no neat resolution to the drama, which leaves us wanting more and with plenty to discuss after the play ends.

Stagecraft

I thoroughly enjoyed Hotel Sorrento but (sorry there is a but!) the production was let down by a couple of glitches with the lighting that distracted from what was happening on stage.

After the interval, I’m not sure if the lighting was supposed to mimic evening or a sunset glow, but two huge red streaks appeared as a backdrop, at first making a V and then like two spotlights.

Later there was a blue background with a white pattern which may have been designed to represent clouds, seagulls, impending storm – who knows?

Dimming and increasing the lighting to change and highlight various scenes was often mistimed too. It’s to the actors’ credit they carried on magnificently.

When we were discussing these glitches with Lena’s friend we learned of the hazards and difficulties of producing a play when you are continually on the move, arriving at different theatres with limited resources and rehearsal times.

It is a miracle there are no major stuff ups!! Well done the consummate professionalism of dedicated actors who learn to adapt and shine.

Each theatre is different, the lighting console may have been strange to the operator, or faulty – the tight schedule and limited time at each theatre means no long rehearsals.

There are four major scene locations in Hotel Sorrento, which can be contained on one stage and controlled by the lights spotlighting whatever part of the stage is hosting the scene: the kitchen of the family home, the pier, the seashore, and Meg’s living room in England.

At Shirley Burke Theatre the stage was smaller than expected and some of the props wouldn’t fit – instead of a lounge suite for Meg and Edwin’s house – an armchair and a standard lamp had to suffice!

The other props closer than the actors were used to… and because the actors double as stagehands removing or rearranging props, it was an added burden to remember who picks up because of the last minute alterations.

The cast is going to be on the road for 77 performances – they’ve done Frankston, Dandenong et al… one night and one matinee in Parkdale, and then onto Moonee Ponds before heading to country Victoria.

So many community theatres, each one presenting their own challenges, hard work and dedication.

Look up the schedule, whether you are a writer, a lover of theatre or have dreams of writing or acting – if you can catch a performance of this anniversary tour of Hannie Rayson’s Hotel Sorrento please do – you won’t regret it!

170815_lamp.png

 

 

 

Quilters Quell Feelings Of Despair And Piece Together Stories To Impress

1. the earth without art is just 'eh'
THE EARTH WITHOUT ART IS JUST ‘EH’

This impressive quilt was just one of many on display at the Australasian Quilt Convention, held at the Exhibition Building, Carlton Gardens, April 5-8, 2018.

It is the largest dedicated quilt event in the southern hemisphere and again I used it as an opportunity to catch up with my “quilter” sister, Cate, who came down from interstate for the event, and our younger sister, Rita joined us.

The event is a wonderful celebration of creativity, craft, and community with international participation and recognition.

If you tell stories with a quilt (as many people do), express yourself through hand-crafted clothes and gifts, or adorn and decorate with embroidery, then the convention was the place to be. And, if the day we attended was anything to go by, the organisers will be thrilled with the numbers!

3. closeup bridges over bombs quilt
PEACE – entered in AQC Challenge – Borders & Bridges

Tragic Coincidence

I’m writing this as President Trump and his allies, UK and France, are bombing Syria and so have chosen the above quilt to showcase first.

Each beautifully stitched panel expressing sentiments dear to my heart. If only quilters and writers had political power…

The quilt maker’s statement will resonate with others, I’m sure:

Every time I hear the news it is filled with atrocities and cruelty… it bruises my shadow. I want to tightly shut my eyes, like a young child wishing not to be seen, in the hope they do not exist… but they do. perhaps shining a light on it through the graffiti of tomorrow will prompt us to see… to discuss… to understand… and to bridge the chasm of disinterest and inaction. By adding one reasoned, empathetic voice to another we will steadily erode the borders between us and achieve what we seek and can earn… a Peaceful World.

Maria Mason

What Do Borders & Bridges Mean To You?

This challenge was one of several given to quilters here and abroad and one Maria addressed.

Quilters from the USA also exhibited quilts responding to, and exploring, two fascinating opposites – Turmoil and Tranquility.

A group of South Australian textile artists explored the hashtag symbol. They interpreted the theme in textiles.  “Originally, a typewriter key symbol for ‘number’, the hashtag is now widely used as a means of connecting targeted audiences on social media platforms.’ (Another ‘topical’ topic!)

The Van Gogh Cherrywood Challenge, Dutch Gallery Tour, also came from the USA. The latest exhibit a predominantly blue swathe of exquisite quilts inspired by Vincent’s life, many of his artistic motifs, and even some fun play on titles and his name.

There was an exhibition Met In Melbourne, from eight Australian textile artists who had dinner at the AQC in 2016 and decided to create ‘pieces of/for 8’ – choosing to make quilt panels focusing on a concept of words ending in “ate” as their theme. (Grab your dictionary – concatenate, undulate, ameliorate, rotate, migrate, pomegranate, decorate and ornate.)

Like the variety of responses in writing class to prompts and triggers, the quilters didn’t disappoint. Their thought-provoking, inspirational, and brilliant interpretations, whether of word, theme, or concept absolutely delightful. 

 

4. violin bridge quilt.jpg
Who would have thought of the violin’s bridge?

 

Another quilt maker asked, “Is this Paradise?”

I looked from the tour bus and saw them, Syrian refugees, huddled on a street in Athens, mattresses bundled under tarps. They all had a look of abject misery, here in a place barely able to support itself, let alone provide them with the future they had risked so much to find.

With this thought in my mind I scanned the Internet for more information about borders and bridges, there were so many stories of people crossing bridges and unmanned borders from war torn lands throughout all the world. Did any of them find their Paradise?

Sue Mobilia

5. is this paradise quilt.jpg
Is This Paradise?

I liked quilt maker Jeannie Henry’s declaration that “Borders and bridges are artificial constructs created by man but ignored by nature.” Jeannie and a couple of other quilters used bridges bordering Victoria and NSW, or over the Murray River as subjects.

Linden Lancaster declares, ” I grew up in the border town of Echuca… spent many hours on the river – a scruffy, suntanned girl – swimming, fishing and riding my bike up and down the goofies with friends. Sometimes we would construct cubbies in the shadow of the bridge when the river was low. My first kiss was under that bridge, bridging childhood into adolescence. Forty years later, the painted graffiti of first crushes are still being proclaimed from the bridge pylons and framework.”

Shirley Drayton trips down memory lane too, ” The Echuca Moama Bridge… originally a road and rail bridge with the Fruit Fly Inspection a stone’s throw from the bridge, to stop the fruit from coming over the border from NSW, to prevent the spread of fruit fly. Mr Ron Hicks (my uncle) the fruit fly inspector… The cars had to stop and wait for the train to come across the bridge. Cattle were taken across for market day at approximately 6.00am, again cars had to wait until all stock and stockmen were completely across.”

How Writers can be Inspired

In my writing classes, particularly Life Stories at Godfrey Street, I’ve given Crossing Borders as a topic and ‘burning bridges’ – something most of us have done in our lives. However, many of the quilts focused on a sense of place, not just for the Borders & Bridges Challenge but even those addressing other themes.

“Place” (or setting) is a great writing topic to make a lesson around – not just for a memoir. A sense of, or focus on, a place can trigger all types of creative writing.

There were many fascinating interpretations of the Bridges & Borders topic. The quilts created were striking – geat for inspiring a writing class, especially poetry.

Topical issues, whimsy reflections, emotional reminiscing and gut-wrenching observations. Quilters love words too – some even incorporate them in quilts.

quilt marriage equality.jpg
Marriage Equality 2017

 

Marriage equality is the bridge across the heart of human love and understanding. Negative emotions and thoughts make up the sea of negativity that border this act of love.

Ronda Hazel

 

12. young woman and body not to be abused.jpg
The World Awaits #TimesUp

 

Fear of or caused by sexual assault causes restrictions and confinements in lifestyle and thought. These borders are internalised, held within the model, stitched in text. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are exciting bridges, for the first time ever women are being heard and believed. The onus is starting to be on men to change – and not on women to curtail their lifestyle, to dress conservatively, to not provoke. Stitched into the background are words of empowerment and hope. This quilt can be hung either way up. the model in bridge pose or flying through the sky, free.

Neroli Henderson.

 

16. koala quilt.jpg
Bridge To Extinction

 

‘Bridge To Extinction’ highlights the conflict between humans and nature. Koalas create borders within their eucalypt habitat. Logging in Southeast Queensland forests shrinks these borders and threatens their survival. Using dyes, printed text, paint and stitch on fabric, I wanted to turn the dry words from the newspaper into imagery that couldn’t be ignored. As human ‘progress’ destroys its habitat, the koala escapes on a log bridge to wasteland. I reflect on the irony of providing koala bridge crossings whilst fragmenting the bushland that serves as their only food source and home.

Marie Mitchell

 

 

13. rosellas and galahs quilt
Bridging The Borders

 

conceptually linked to the theme… by its very title. The borders are the empty husks of the gumnuts on the right, symbolising youth and as such empty of knowledge and the full, flowering gumnuts on the left, symbolise old age and being of wisdom and experience. The bridge is represented by the birds arching in full flight across the sky, connecting one side to the other and symbolising the flight of time between youth and old age. Leap from one side and trust that your own momentum shall carry you to the other side.

Kathryn Harmer Fox

 

11. masking ptsd - bulding bridges quilt
A Hidden Reality

 

P.T.S.D. is an insidious and debilitating disorder. Every part of your life is affected. Enduring workplace harassment and bullying led to devastating consequences for me. I was told to ‘build bridges and get over it’. Physically and mentally I was unable to cross the border from NSW to VIC for several years. My career was shattered. I learnt to mask emotions in order to function. Emotionally and creatively I felt dead for several years. the theme resonated immediately for me. The image flashed into my mind and stayed there. Creating it was cathartic. I am a survivor – speak up about bullying.

Julie Evans

 

9. looking for the edge- two generations bridged
Looking For The Edge

 

“Taken from a photograph of my daughter and granddaughter as they gaze out across the sand towards the open ocean. The sand is the border between land and sea. My daughter and granddaughter bridge the generations as they hold hands sharing the moment. They do this often in a silent communication of their shared love for the beach.”

Di Tramontana

 

14. love bridges all borders
LOVE BRIDGES ALL BORDERS

A great display of heartfelt offerings with memorable and thoughtful designs produced by deft hands and artistic minds.

Van Gogh In Stitches

The Cherrywood Challenge was in Australia from the USA for the first time and the exhibit displayed textile art inspired by Van Gogh’s life and masterworks. It was an extensive tribute to the much-loved artist.

Participants from all over the world with 200 out of 450 entries selected. The quilts will travel throughout the world. Participants win fabric prizes, receive extensive exposure and have their work published in a book.

Not surprisingly, there is a growing interest in the Cherrywood Challenge and I think it is appealing to a younger audience than is usually associated with quilting. The next theme being Prince, the musician – cherrywoodfabricsbigcartel.com

 

 

Tradition Versus Technology

There were plenty of traditional quilts on display but I overheard a couple of older ladies lamenting the introduction of “too much technology” – for them hand stitching still the mark of a good quilter.

There may be some resistance to technology, a fear it is ‘overwhelming’ what many proudly boast as a craft were needlework and handmade were the keys to excellence.

Others were ecstatic about the new sewing machines, embroidery attachments, printers that process photographs and material, computerised design and stencil cutters and numerous other offerings from the stall holders, teachers and workshops at the convention.

The digital divide is everywhere – those that embrace and those that resist.

It may be a case of move over or adapt Baby Boomers if you don’t want the Millenials to needle you! Times change – and often for the better…

1949 attitudes to women and sewing.jpg

Generations Explained

And in case you wonder where you fit in, here is a potted version of The Atlantic’s explanation – believe what you will:

  • Greatest Generation, 1930-1946 – they fought and many died in WW2 for ‘our freedom’.
  • Baby Boomers, 1946 – 1964 – freedom from fear because the war was over and relaxation of sexual mores means the name is self-explanatory.
  • Gen X, 1965 -1984 – because it fits a nice 20-year time span, spoiled, apparently they think they’re ‘cool’.
  • Gen Y, – mid-70s to mid-2000s – but considered a made-up generation, so really fake – skip to Millenials…
  • Millenials, 1982 -2004 – the digital natives who apparently want it all.

From a Baby Boomer With Millenial Daughters

I like traditional quilts and know how much time, effort, and expertise is involved – I’ve observed my sister and had many discussions with her and listened while she has explained in great depth the intricacies of various methods of applique, patchwork, dramatic designs, embroidery, paper-piercing and fussy cutting techniques.

However, she belongs to a quilting group that is open to new methods, technology and new ideas – caring, sharing and learning a great philosophy.

I have two creative daughters totally comfortable with new technology and pop culture.

Below is a minute selection of traditional quilts on display – there were even rows of the ‘Best in Australia” with award winners from every state.

I love the inclusion of non-traditional articles and adaptations. We met a young lass who loves cosplay. She was promoting sewing machines with attachments that did specific embroidery and lace effects.

We chatted about cosplay and I mentioned some of the memorable costumes I saw when I went to a convention in Sydney a few years ago.

Her anime costume a gorgeous pink layered dress with rabbit ears headgear. She wore the dress recently as a volunteer at the Children’s Hospital at Easter and attends events and does other promotions when she has time.

The dress took several weeks to make and has over $400 worth of material. A marvellous example of dedication to popular culture using centuries-old crafts.

There were two other costumes on display – one a la Jane Austen and one from the Lord of The Rings.

While I was engrossed in reading the stories behind the quilts my sisters met up with a writer and academic who has just published a book Towns and Trailblazers.

Rita was particularly impressed with Jen Wulff ‘s research of local women from the 18th, 19th or early 20th centuries, some renowned, others unknown.

‘Each trailblazer and her town have inspired a quilt block which combines to create an Australian inspired textile providing a tangible connection to places and the women remembered.’

29. quilt of forgotten women

The quilt blocks relate to the far North West coast, through to the Red Centre, across to the East Coast and down to Southern Tasmania. Short stories about the women, quilt templates and construction tips are included in the book, which Rita, bought.

Jen is a quilter too and ‘greatly values the lasting friendships made through local quilt groups and she hopes her recently published book increases awareness of both quilting and the role women had in shaping Australia.’

The Melbourne Exhibition ‘8’

 

31. concatenate exhibition 8 quilt.jpg
CONCATENATE

 

“To link together, to unite in a series or chain.” Quilter Lee Vause drew inspiration from childhood games: Scrabble, Barrel of Monkeys, Snakes and Ladders and Twister.

 

32. decorate quilt.jpg
DECORATE

 

Using thread and free motion stitching, quilter Raylene Richardson decorated face shapes emphasising different facial elements.

33. ornate.jpg
ORNATE

Showing wonderful use of texture and design and manipulation of materials, ‘Ornate’ is self-explanatory, but for ‘Migrate’ the quilter chose feathers and fish to represent the large migrations that occur in nature.

 

 33. Migrate 8.jpg
MIGRATE

 

Our world is constantly turning, slowly spinning and rotating around the sun. Inspired by the marvels of the natural world Brenda Wood is fascinated by the way the sun peeks over our horizon in the east and we catch ‘the trails of its warmth and beauty, until each evening we rotate away from its heat and light…’

Sunlight travelling through our atmosphere scatters colours, stronger beams during the day than in the evening – depictions of the varying strength of colour in sunrises and sunsets represent the concept of rotating.

 

34. exhibition 8 1.jpg
ROTATE

Instead of an adjective, quilter Sally Westcott chose a noun. The pomegranate is beautiful to eat, cook with, and to paint and draw. She enjoyed exploring its texture, shape and colour.

 

38.  pomegranate.jpg
POMEGRANATE

Internationally, award-winning, Melbourne based Neroli Henderson chose the word ‘ameliorate’ – the process of making something bad or unpleasant better. Her panels “focus on the vulnerability of the female form, and its power and ability. Creating personal, explorative works such as these helps to ameliorate the past. An artistic catharsis. These pieces seek to take memories of physical pain and loneliness and transform them into moments of beauty.

 

36. female form quilt exhibitioin 8.jpg
AMELIORATE

 

I wonder how many people have heard of Neroli ( eiloren.com.au ), quilter, writer, editor of Textile Fibre Forum magazine (2014-16), a group owner of the popular Facebook Textile Arts group, and an artist ‘who combines art quilting techniques and materials with traditional media and digital approaches.’ She believes ‘in the use of textiles and stitch as a valid fine art medium and can often be found using this traditional “women’s work” to create feminist, political, and other social commentary based artworks.’

As my first image implies – I can’t imagine a world without art – in all its forms!

 

36. undulate quilt.jpg
UNDULATE

Kim Boland’s chosen word ‘undulate’ transformed into four colourful and charming panels. “Undulating, curvy, wave-like lines, found all around us, are peaceful and calming.”

 

Her depictions: blue ocean waves, rolling green hills, red desert dunes and yellow fields of canola. Specifically shaped pieces portray the movement of air and water across flowering fields, sandy dunes, grassy fields and ocean waves.

Carolyn Sullivan’s Retrospective

Mairi Neil (a found poem from AQC 2018)

Australia’s climate captured
cool and hot, clear and misty
searing heat, sleet, and storms
flat plateau country and
eucalypt and deciduous forest,
garden parks and deserts of
thousands of kilometres…
changing environment evoked
and expanded on cloth canvas
lovingly dyed with colours
of plants from Aussie desert and bush.
Plainness transformed
into earthy and warm
tantalising textures,
tree trunk tracks of insects,
lichen, leaf and fungi patterns,
depictions of diversity –
native animals, trees, birds,
and beautiful grasses…
hand stitched close, straight,
the vastness of the landscape
and love of country
honoured in every stitch.

Retrospective.jpg

There was another evocative reflection of the world by quilter Gillian Travis which if I was talented with a needle, on any level, I’d love to do!  She has created quilts from her travels to exotic, and not so exotic, places like Uzbekistan, India, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, South Africa, Europe, Israel and Jordan.

These quilts focus on people and place and beg for stories to be imagined and written!

Observation and attention to detail important for quilters, photographers and writers. At the convention, you could do a course on turning your favourite photograph into a quilt and intrepid traveller Gillian’s work offered walls of inspiration.

Journeys In Stitch

 

Turmoil And Tranquility

“Presented by the Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA), this museum-quality exhibition features quilts created specifically as art pieces. Work brought from the USA explores two fascinating opposites…”

Again, what was fascinating was how each artist interpreted the words and I loved reading the stories behind the quilts.  Just as we become comfortable or can relate to particular stories or genres in our taste of books, so too how the artists depicted the theme is influenced by our ideas of what the words could mean.

Sometimes what the artist was trying to do resonated more than the finished piece, and at other times little explanation was required.

Jill Kerttula from Virginia chose the turmoil of a woman’s first pregnancy: ‘physical, emotional, cultural, and mental changes and challenges, both internal and external.’ Jill used sketches from ancient medical texts, copies of cards her mother received and original images to portray turmoil and angst.

baby quilt - turmoil.jpg
BABY QUILT

Jennifer Day from New Mexico chose Donald as her subject for Tranquility. He has ‘led a life full of twists and turns… his adulthood serving his country in the French Indonesian War in 1956 – almost 70 years ago. He later served in Korea, and in another war that he will not talk about. He has had cancer numerous times and is still fighting lung cancer.’

Jennifer took a photo of Donald as he sat in the window of an old barn in New Mexico. She captured the light of the setting sun gracing his face and “his expression leads us to believe that he is content. At age 86, I believe that he is satisfied with life and that his future holds promise.”

I was charmed by this quilt, by the subject matter and outlook of the artist and my photograph does not do it justice – each strand of hair is stitching – the artistry seamless connectivity in this work truly impressive.

donald in the light quilt.jpg
DONALD IN THE LIGHT

Carol Capozzoli from Connecticut captured the insidious spread and effect of cancer. “From the first pathological cell division, turmoil begins… (it) spreads to surrounding tissues and possibly other body parts. With a diagnosis, the turmoil spreads to the person’s emotional and spiritual being, and to those close to the person.”

cancerous turmoil quilt.jpg

  A CANCEROUS TURMOIL

Lots of the pieces celebrating nature or the seasons understandably focused on tranquillity. Judith Roderick from New Mexico chose the endangered Whooping Crane.

“There is something very compelling about a human-sized, ancient bird who has been on the planet since the dinosaurs. the Whooping Crane, one of the two North American Crane species, is the world’s most endangered crane with about 600 now in existence. This quilt was hand-drawn from some of my own photographs. It reflects my hope, intention, and prayer that they may continue to grace our skies and landscapes for ages to come.”

whooper image in water quilt.jpg
Whooper

Illness is probably the most common disruption many of us experience and as our population ages, statistics reckon more of us will be living longer and coping with Alzheimer’s.

Diane Born from Oregon seemed to reflect from personal experience when she wrote, “That fine, immaculate woman is now mismatched and muddled. She withdraws from loved ones, snarls at children. plaque invades her brain, erupting in tangles, robbing her of memories. She mutters and mumbles, rarely smiles. paranoia stalks her, evident in mood swings, delusions, and apathy. Her sewing, hand or machine, fragments and disintegrates. Brain waves slow and falter, losing a rhythmic pattern. the lady vanishes into the disease.”

My father succumbed to dementia. It too was slow and insidious and painful to watch. Occasionally, flashes of the father we knew and loved appeared – the effect on the person and their family is indeed turmoil!

slow death alzheimers quilt.jpg
A SLOW DEATH BY ALZHEIMER’S

Another piece that resonated was by Michele Lea of Ohio. who admits to constantly searching for peace and tranquillity.

“Trying to find a place of light, rather than focusing on the cloud of darkness that looms over me, is a daily ritual. I suffer from chronic mental depression, which is a disease with no cure. More than 40 million people suffer from it and suicide is an ongoing threat for those of us who want to escape. The image of me floating, with butterflies draping over me as a blanket, is tranquillity. For me, it is an end to torment – a place of safety and peace; my original home where I could join my creator and become whole again.”

tranquility the end quilt.jpg
TRANQUILLITY THE END

It is a reflection of the times and the pervasiveness of the 24-hour news cycle that the turmoil of the world refugee crisis is never far from our screens or minds. Sandy Gregg from Massachusetts observes:

Since the beginning of time, people have left their homes to begin lives as refugees for a myriad of reasons, including war, discrimination, crop failure, and religion. This piece represents borders crossed, obstacles faced, and the turmoil that these brave people face during their travels.”

turmoil of refugees quilt.jpg
CROSSINGS I

Another quilt that appealed to me used vintage postcards (collecting postcards a hobby of mine) and image transfer a technique I’d be tempted to use if a quilter.

Patricia Kennedy-Zafred from Pennsylvania is doing a series portraying women from all over the world with ‘strikingly varied concepts of beauty‘.

The images are of Japanese geisha who ‘despite the typical connotation, true geisha were highly trained in dance, music and various forms of art.‘ Their calm facial expressions ‘part of their allure, as their rigorous training was designed to create a presence of subtlety, strength, and grace.’

geishas.jpg
A SEPARATE REALITY

I have to feature Donna Deaver from Idaho who although we are living on separate continents, we have a similar way of relaxing and finding that elusive tranquillity.

I have a deep love of the sea. It draws me in an unexplainable way, calling to me when I least expect it. Even though I no longer live by the ocean, I feel at home whenever I return. One of my favourite times of the day is early morning when the beach is empty. Listening to the infinite rhythm of the surf is a form of meditation.”

morning stroll tranquillity quilt.jpg
MORNING WALK

Believe it or not, the images featured are only a tiny selection of what was on offer at the AQC 2018. I’ve written about some that caught my eye, or touched my heart as a writer and haven’t done any justice at all to the array of fabrics, threads and techniques the artists applied.

Suffice to say the convention has lots to offer to those not expert or involved in the art of quilting, and from what I’ve observed the few times I’ve attended it is only going to expand and become more eclectic.

If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read and seen in this post, I hope you attend one day, you won’t regret it.

Having firsthand knowledge of the quilting community via my older sister I know they have a sense of humour too and I love the self-deprecating quilts like this one – the three women are staring at the latest super duper sewing machine and asking “But does it make the coffee?”

quilters - but does it make the coffee.jpg

After this marathon writing effort, I’m heading to the kitchen to make a cup… but will leave you with one of my personal favourites from the convention with a message for all those who struggle to achieve their dream…

 

nevertheless she spersisted.jpg
A tribute to Senator Elizabeth Warren.

 

Unexpected, Unplanned, and Unpredictable but Marvellous Melbourne!

mairi melbourne museum

On Saturday, I met my older sister, Cate at Southern Cross Station. A quilter, she had come down from Albury for the weekend to attend a Stitches & Craft show at the Exhibition Buildings in Carlton. We discussed attending weeks ago but no definite arrangements were made until she knew she could get time off work and a seat on the train.

I’m catching the train at 6.00 am – see you at 10.30.”

‘The weather’s forecast to be hot and humid – don’t overdress!”

In September, when Cate visited for the Dior Exhibition at the National Gallery we experienced a warmer than average spring day and she regretted wearing too heavy clothes while I worried about her increasingly flushed face and a shortage of breath.

Yes, we are both at that age where warnings about blood pressure, heart strain or breathing difficulties loom large and prescription pills rattle in our bags!

Don’t worry,’ she said, “I’m prepared this time.’

Plans, Preparation – and the Weather!

We caught a tram up Collins Streets and walked through the gardens at Carlton admiring the lush greenery and bright blooms. Lulled into peaceful serenity by the azure sky and fluffy clouds, families having fun, and tourists snapping selfies.

We shared pleasantries and the promise of a wonderful day catching up and enjoying the exhibition.

 

The 138-year-old Exhibition Building a new venue for Stitches & Craft but a magnificent setting. Cate and I had last visited here when some of her work was shown at the quilting show.

The Exhibition Building feeds my love of history and depending which entrance used, I learn something new every time – like this snippet of history and the monument I’ve dubbed ‘the protest sculpture’.

I’m sure the debate of the day mirrored many we still have about imports being favoured over local products but how many of our current MPs would put their money where their mouth is like the Hon. John Woods?

 

When we rounded the corner, we were relaxed and comfortable – and surprised the entrance silent and deserted.

  • Where were the queues of excited participants?
  • Where were the clusters of crafters discussing techniques, products, and great bargains?

The beautifully carved doors shut tight and no huffing, puffing or pushing or whispering magic words like ‘open sesame‘ made a bit of difference.

We met a couple of young women who were also confused. At first, I thought they were just admiring the architecture but then discovered they were itching to stitch and craft…

doors to exhibition buildings

Cate, who is more computer savvy than me quickly Googled.

The venue correct – the date wrong. ‘It’s next weekend...’

The girls looked crushed. The surrounding water from fountain and lake a metaphor for tears.

mini lake carlton gardens 2

We just felt a little like ‘Dumber and Dumbest,’ but recovered instantly. After all, we were standing beside another fantastic venue and reading the advertising signs, the Victorian Museum offered several new exhibits, as well as the bonus cafe.

Within moments we had cloakroomed Cate’s bag, and clutching entry tickets we enjoyed a cuppa before wandering through what must be one of the most delightful, airy museums in Australia.

I appreciate the improvement more than most because in 1974  I was a research assistant attached to the library at the museum when it was housed in Russell Street.

The modern layout and approach to exhibits and the knowledge shared absolutely amazing compared to the archaic and ancient displays of the dark, drafty building where I used to work.

Weaving A Story

On the first floor as you walk along feast your eyes on The Federation Tapestry designed and made by the Victorian Tapestry Workshop to mark the centenary of Australia’s birth as a nation.

Murray Walker, the principal artist/designer, collaborated with more than 20 artists to develop the tapestry around the theme “One People, united in peace“.

There is a short video that tells the story of how 24 weavers worked an estimated 20,000 hours to create the 10 panels. It was woven at the Victorian Tapestry Workshop in Melbourne 2000-2001.

The tapestry presents some of the great themes of the Australian story: dispossession, settlement, adaptation, the land, celebration, hope.

There are household names to recognise – Patrick White, Henry Lawson, Mirka Mora, Bruce Petty…

The artists set out to trigger memories and inspire reflection about the future of our land and as a writing teacher, I know students could spend hours here using the various frames for inspiration.

My favourite has to be the drawings and words from indigenous children and their aspirations for the future:

  • People should care about each other.
  • I want Australia to be happy.
  • And I want my family to be happy.
  • I want the animals to be free.
  • I want us all to be happy all of our lives.
  • I want all the trees to grow happy.

children's tapestry.jpg

The talent and cleverness of the artists and weavers truly a wonder to behold.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Women Of The Land

A collaboration between the Invisible Farmer Project and Her Place Women’s Museum Australia celebrates rural women who work, protect and heal the land.

We farm to feed those we love and our communities. Within my community, I have an amazing tribe of women that I surround myself with. They’re the ones that buoy me in times of need and celebrate with me. Women supporting one another is a primal and magical thing.

Amy Paul, Ruby Hills Organics, Walkerville.

The Invisible Farmer Project acknowledges and records the diverse, innovative and vital role of Australian women in agriculture. The project involves a national partnership between rural communities, academics, government and cultural organisations.

Launched this year in March, several of the stories feature in a mini exhibition, along with artefacts like one participant’s hat, which embodies the important role she played in leading farming communities and rural organisations.

There is great detail about the first four women interviewed for the project and more information  can be found at invisiblefarmer.net.au

What an invaluable resource for any writer researching contemporary Australia’s female farmers! And the stories a wonderful learning tool for us all, whether we need to use the information or not because the project aims to:

  • Create new histories of rural Australia
  • Reveal the hidden stories of women on the land
  • Learn about the diverse, innovative and vital role of women in agriculture
  • Stimulate public discussions about contemporary issues facing rural Australia and its future
  • Develop significant public collections that will enable far-reaching outcomes in research, industry and public policy

A Gathering was held for women on farms and I snapped Cate appreciating the sewing and design of the squares making up a commemorative banner of those organisations that participated.

Her Place, Women’s Museum Australia

Her Place celebrates the social, civic, and entrepreneurial achievements of Australian women and their role in shaping our nation. Three exhibitions have been curated this year to tour regional and metropolitan Victoria.

Her Place is still working towards the creation of a permanent public space that will collect and preserve women’s records and archives so that the distinctive achievements and contributions of women can be acknowledged and written into history.

(As opposed to herstory being ignored for centuries!)

Four Victorian women strongly bound to the land are honoured. You can listen to them tell their story about living and being committed to the land and their communities, as well as enjoy a display of personal artefacts:

  • Aunty Fay Carter (Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung Senior Elder)
  • Maisie Carr nee Fawcett (pioneering scientist)
  • Pat Bigham (farmer and firefighter)
  • Val Lang (farmer and agricultural mentor)

Lunchtime came and went and we could easily have spent all day appreciating what makes Melbourne marvellous in an exhibition that allows you to meander through replicas of arcades and streets of inner Melbourne of the past.

I have a little book somewhere bought from Cole’s Book Arcade and can remember being fascinated by the shop.

Well done to the researchers and writers for all the information made available to the general public and presented in such palatable chunks. Thanks too must go to the designers, tradies and staff who helped create delightful exhibits.

Cate and I decided to head down to the city but found ourselves trapped in the foyer waiting for a very heavy downpour of rain to subside.

The marine creature display apt – even to the look of surprise or is it excitement on the shark’s face? And yes, there were people getting soaked voluntarily so they could take photographs.

One little boy ignored the thunder and had a great time splashing in puddles!

Flash Storm Flushes and Flusters
Mairi Neil

Who will be the first to drown seemed the
challenge from the heavens as clouds exploded
and torrential rain cascaded down.
Not me,’ said everyone with umbrellas held high
Nor me,’ said others huddled inside, and dry.

‘I don’t care,’ cried the little boy with glee as
he splashed in puddles, yelling, ‘Look at me!’

Thunder roared and growled –
was that a lightning flash?
Braving the downpour, some people
made a dash – finding cover in bus shelters
snuggled close to strangers – while others
recklessly crossed streets ignoring dangers.

‘I don’t care,’ cried the little boy with glee as
he splashed in puddles, yelling, ‘Look at me!’

‘Any port in a storm’ a cliche so true
as doorways and porches became home
for much more than a few.
Downpipes sagged and gushed
collapsed under watery weight –
surging water made rivers of roads and
too much rain meant every tram late!

I don’t care,’ cried the little boy with glee as
he splashed in puddles, yelling, ‘Look at me!’

Soaked, sodden, and shivering
commuters crowd tram, train and bus
meteorological or seasonal confusion –
‘It’s Melbourne and no surprise, to us.’

‘I truly don’t care,’ cries the inner child with glee
‘splashing in puddles looks really good to me!’

Despite the rain, we managed to get to Spencer Street and catch a train home.

‘I really enjoyed myself,’ said Cate.

‘Me too,’ I said and quoted Dad’s favourite poet Rabbie Burns, ‘The best-laid schemes … Gang aft a-gley…’ before adding, ‘ but our day was rainbow and never grey!’

 

Memories Enriched By Love

pictures of mum and me me and mj.jpg

I can’t believe it is seven years since Mum passed away, and as usual, on anniversaries of a loved one’s death or other special occasion, thoughts drift to the past.

I love my Life Stories & Legacies class at Godfrey Street, Bentleigh because each week I can conjure a memory and reflection as well as record family stories and history: growing up, studying, working, having my own children, and all the incidents, major and minor events,  coincidences,  and occurrences that weave to make the rich tapestry of our life.

This morning, my older sister sent me a message to say ‘thinking of us all today’ and as messages flew back and forth, we shared memories of Mum and her legacy – so different for each of her six children and fourteen grandchildren.

No matter how old you are there can be something special about a mother’s love – here’s a memory I had one day on the train going to work.

Shelter From The Storm
Mairi Neil

Bruised clouds sweep the sky
a gloomy ominous pall.
I remember your voice
a thunderplump is on its way.’

Nearing sixty,
I wish to be six again
to feel comforting arms
gather me close.

Cushioned against your chest
my anxious heart
working overtime
Pit pat, pit pat, pit pat

Until attuned to your
gentle breathing, and steady
ba boom, ba boom,
ba boom.

To relax, as your hands
usually burdened with chores
keep me safe
in rhythmic caress.

mum and mairi.jpg

Last year, in class we talked about childhood games and memories of the parks and places where we’d play. Children haven’t really changed but childhood has and oldies like me notice the change – the way we parented and the way new generations parent.

We were certainly left to our own devices for more hours in a much less structured day!

trace of butterfly on window

Parks and Places to Play

My first nine years were spent in Greenock, Scotland. I can’t remember much of the first three years living at number 2 George Square, a tenement, in the centre of town, but the move further out to Braeside and starting school at Ravenscraig Primary, provides plenty of material and memories.

Despite the rustic name (brae means hill in Scots), there were no parks as such for us to play in. We spent a lot of time in back gardens (‘back greens’ as they were called) and playing games in the street. Traffic minimal in the 50s and early 60s with Dad being one of the few in the street to own a vehicle. He had a motorbike at first, then bought a Bradford van. We played on pavement and road rarely disturbed by cars. In those days it would be rare not to see children playing in the street.

images-1-2.jpg
Yours truly with ‘the big girls’ wearing mums’ shoes

Our games were rowdy affairs: hopscotch (called ‘beds’), skipping with lengths of rope salvaged from washing lines, football (soccer), rounders – often with homemade bats, and the exhausting body-bruising but fun British Bulldog and Relievers (an equally physical game).

We also roamed the hill opposite and the farmer’s fields at the bottom of the road. The housing scheme stretched on a steep hill. Our house at number 35 Davaar Road in the middle of the street’s curve. Davaar Road the topmost homes in the scheme. Across the road from us, behind the last row of grey Corporation houses, the hill climbed high to view or walk to Gourock and the River Clyde on the other side.

This brae devoid of tall trees, but spread with scrub, granite boulders, and heather. Enough natural flora to keep us entertained with games influenced by episodes of popular shows broadcast by the fledgling television industry: The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, Robin Hood and his Merry Men (my favourite, Maid Marion), and whatever wonderful land Walt Disney invited us into when we wished upon a star on Sunday evenings.

Up the hill, I learned how to make daisy chains and to check who liked butter by waving buttercups under their chin and was shocked when a neighbour’s six-year-old asked if I wanted to see his ‘willie’. I shared Saturday night baths with three brothers, so couldn’t see the point!

A memorable part of the long summer holidays we spent collecting twigs, branches and anything that would burn in preparation for bonfire night in November. We never forgot Guy Fawkes or the rhyme, ‘Remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason, and plot!’

The hills also experienced children roaming in hordes, buckets and jam jars in hand, seeking blackberries when in season. The taste of Mum’s delicious bramble jam a great incentive to risk getting scratched and clothes torn picking the hard-to-reach ones, which always seemed the fattest and juiciest.

Blackberries.JPG

At the bottom of the street spread the farmer’s fields, where we weren’t supposed to go. His bull known to be a danger to life and limb. Of course, we incorporated a deliberate dare in some of our games.

There must be a guardian angel for stupid children.

The other reason the fields were off-limits was because the Tinkers (or Gypsies but now correctly referred to as Travellers) used to camp there.  Mum and Dad didn’t practise overt bigotry or prejudice against Travellers like some people. Mum, in fact, helped them whenever she could: letting them do mending and other odd jobs, and buying some of the goods they hawked (like wooden clothes pegs).

She often repeated a story of the ‘Gypsy Woman’ who knocked on the door when she was a little girl in Belfast. Her mother bought clothes pegs but also gave extra money and food. In return, for the kindness, the woman offered to tell her fortune but being a devout Christian Grandmother declined. Instead, the old  woman took Mum’s hand and prophesied that she would travel across the sea, not once but twice, and the last journey would be far away across a large ocean. Mum would also bear seven children.

images-4-3
The surviving six of us with Mum 1961

 

You cross The Irish Sea to get to Scotland, so all of us knew the first part of the prediction was right! (It wasn’t until much later that we found out Mum gave birth to seven children and my older sister’s identical twin died soon after birth. Of course, the largest ocean was the journey to Australia by ship when we migrated.)

Mum also believed you don’t go ‘looking for trouble,’ stranger danger not indoctrinated like modern times and we were not made overly fearful, but we were warned to be careful and obey the limitations placed on us, ‘no visiting the Tinker’s camp.’

Again, rules we chose to ignore!

Unfortunately, as a consequence, for years a vivid nightmare recurred, of being terrified and running in fear of my life, yet unable to ask for comfort because I played in the forbidden fields.

Sometimes we live to regret not obeying rules!

I must have been seven years old and had wandered away from the usual gang of playmates, including my older brothers and sister. Always inquisitive, I decided to explore the fields at the bottom of the road. I discovered the remnants of an army camp – underground bunkers abandoned at the end of WW2 and no doubt used by the Travellers. Perhaps I’d heard the more adventurous boys talk about it – I can’t really remember. I do remember spending most of my childhood playing with my two older brothers and their friends because we were all so close in age – only 13 months separated me from George and 17 months separated him from Iain.

In the campsite, there were the usual discarded items: an old army boot, rusted tins, broken furniture, and piles of accumulated recent rubbish, including the ubiquitous empty whisky and beer bottles. Exciting finds for a curious child.

this very similar to the camp.jpg
An abandoned camp similar to the one I remember

 

I never heard or noticed a movement from a bundle of dirty, grey blankets.

Without warning, an unkempt man reeking of alcohol made a grab for me. I ran for my life and didn’t stop until I was home, safe behind the gate. Davaar Road was steep but my little legs pounded the pavement without a pause.

The drunk maybe didn’t mean any harm, my presence probably surprised him as much as he startled me. I vaguely remember him murmuring about a match. Perhaps he woke up craving a cigarette – the two addictions of nicotine and alcohol often go together. All I remember is knicker-wetting terror; the sound of panting breath and thudding heart in my ears.

The proverbial wild horses would not pull me into the farmer’s fields! I didn’t care if I was accused of being a scaredy-cat because I was after that encounter. The smell and fear of the abandoned army camp forever part of my nightmares.

A more pleasant memory is playing near the secret lake. We’d walk along the Aileymill Road, a country trail linking the new housing scheme with isolated cottages on the way to Inverkip and Skelmorlie, tiny seaside towns further down the coast.

The hedgerows home to Willow Tits and Warblers singing their delightful ditties, the Golden Ringed dragonfly patrolling and the final goodbyes of the Swallows and Cuckoos before they left for Africa.

Cotton Grass swayed in the breeze and the heather’s vibrant colours bright amongst scented summer foliage not found in our home gardens with their neat rows of dahlias and roses. The hedges camouflage for lizards and beetles darting at our feet and the hilarious attempts of the boys to capture them.

We fished for tadpoles, and hunted frogs and toads, in our secret lake. Logs and stones upturned along damp paths. Bumblebees buzzing and Blue Bottles humming and maybe a hare or deer spotted, fleeing our noisy play. Sojourns to the secret lake a highlight of the long summer holidays as we ventured further afield than allowed.

I revisited Braeside in the 70s and like everything else seen through adult eyes, the secret lake had shrunk. More a puddle really, just as the farmer’s fields seemed a small tract of land with plenty of cowpats, but not a bull in sight!

However, the hillside and view to Gourock was still a scenic wonderland and looking across the sparkling River Clyde revived memories of delightful Sunday School picnics at Kilcreggan and trips ‘doon the water’ to Millport and Dunoon. Children’s laughter still echoed and with a deep breath and strong imagination I could smell Mum’s blackberry jam.

Suffering Suffragettes – Women Do Laugh!

 

Suffragettes2-e1413212913955.jpg
from BBC archive – women in Lancaster

It is holiday time and I relaxed at the movies with my youngest daughter Mary Jane and two longtime friends and writing buddies, Barbara and Maureen.

‘Three generations watching Suffragette,said MJ, ‘coffee afterwards should be interesting.’ And it was!

MJ is 26, I’m 62, Barbara 78, and Maureen almost 80. Four women with varying degrees of knowledge about the ‘first wave of feminism’. Four women who have experienced very different lives and education. Women who have lived through legislative changes towards gender equality, and some profound changes in attitude.

Maureen and Barbara can remember WW2 and along with me, experienced restrictions and unfairness because of our gender. I joined Women’s Liberation in the 70s.

And of course, with today’s newspaper headlines, MJ can quite rightly ask, ‘How far have we really come?’

We wanted to come away from the movie feeling empowered and uplifted, although under no illusions that the struggle for equality and respect continues in 2016.

Instead, we left the cinema angry, sad, and with a list of disappointments about aspects of the script, the choice and performance of actors, and a storyline that tried to cover too many topics, too frugally.

Was Meryl Streep chosen to play Emmeline Pankhurst to attract funding? Her cameo role came across as wooden, the dialogue bland rhetoric and any personality buried under too many layers of period costume.

 

Suffragettes,_England,_1908.JPG
BBC archives -Women’s Social and Political Union 1908

Criticisms aside, I hope people see the film, think about the issues raised, have conversations and initiate discussions – especially with fathers, husbands, brothers, sons and daughters.

Unless you deliberately seek information about the suffragettes, they receive a glance in history classes at school or are ignored altogether. Many universities no longer support Women’s Studies.

However, I’m at a loss as to what audience the film hoped for, because if it was to educate men (and new generations of women), I think it will fail to attract bums on seats.

If it is ‘preaching to the converted’ it disappoints.

If it is aimed at all women, or the general public, they should have placed more emphasis on success and focused on inspiration and the political journey.

At the end of the film’s action,  a scrolled list of various (not all) countries and the dates when women were allowed to vote is a lost opportunity. The list is not put into any sort of context to make it memorable. (A headline from a newspaper, or file footage of the achievement and public reaction against the dates would have been nice.)

Many women already know why the women’s movement developed and will go to see the movie to learn the history. They’ll seek a reason to celebrate, be entertained, empowered – there are so many women who were amazing at that time. Why the story had to be told through the life of a fictional character seems strange.

I was looking forward to a film celebrating the first wave of feminism and hoped for something as inspiring as PrideWhen that movie ended in the Kino Cinema there was spontaneous applause. The audience walked out of the cinema emotionally engaged, aware we had experienced something special;we  better understood and appreciated an important historical struggle, saw the best and worst of the human spirit.

I wanted that feeling after Suffragette. The courage and vision of those women not only gave me rights I enjoy today, but the inspiration and impetus to join the Women’s Liberation Movement when I started university in 1971.

I’ve been committed to telling and promoting herstory for years through my community involvement, my parenting, my writing, teaching, and social activism. All the issues raised in the film, including the right to vote (and why many women don’t) and wage inequality are still relevant today.

Meanwhile, domestic violence, especially the murder of women in the family home, a place where they should feel the safest, is the subject of a Royal Commission here in Victoria to grab people’s attention and effect real change.

Unfortunately, Suffragette is bleak and the sacrifices and gains the women made buried in a script that tries to do too much and tell too many important stories without giving detailed justice to most of them.

Why a fictional character when any number of women’s life story could have been told to make the same points?

18536e6732f186631f4e82093ab9a17d

In the film, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) becomes a suffragette, not so much by choice but by a series of accidents: she gets caught up in a direct action campaign of window-smashing, is approached by a fellow worker who cajoles her to attend a meeting.

Suddenly, from a reluctant convert begged to join, she’s blowing up mailboxes and Lloyd George’s country manor. Instant radicalisation and a speedy character arc that leaves a lot of unanswered questions about personal growth and why such violence.

Suffragette is clear about the power of men and entrenched patriarchy – from the deviousness and duplicity of politicians and police, to the tyranny of husbands and employers, but it introduces subjects like sexual abuse and exploitation, domestic violence and the abrogation of women’s rights over their own children, money and property – huge social topics – depicted briefly and focused on a handful of women as if they are the movement.

An empowered Maud rescues a young girl from the clutches of an employer who also abused Maud from twelve years old. She fought for this girl’s rights, but apart from a crying tantrum she lets a couple take her son after her husband puts him up for adoption because he can’t cope as a single parent.

The scene included to expose the lack of a mother’s rights but was a storyline that deserved longer exploration and didn’t gel with Maud’s feisty character.

Where was the sisterhood? The band of guerrillas Maud joined, would surely have stepped in. These were women prepared to damage property, suffer indignities in prison including barbaric force-feeding (the physical consequences down played in the movie).

If they couldn’t stop the adoption, they’d have encouraged her to kidnap the boy or at least make a public fight for her rights. Some of those women had money as well as influential husbands, who were not all anti suffragette.

Check out the Changeling, a movie on the profound power of a mother’s love, set in 1928 LA and based on a true story of single mother Christine Collins. A movie that tackles a host of social and political issues but never loses sight of the determination of a mother to get her son back. Ironically, 1928 is the year some British women get the vote – years behind the empire’s  ex-colonies.

This is another point of contention. There is not even a mention of the advances in other countries, no mention of our Australian hero Vida Goldstein, and no exploration of why British women had to resort to violence when Australia achieved voting rights with the help of the Women’s Suffrage Petition.

It wasn’t a documentary, but what exactly was the film when a key suffragette like Pankhurst is almost airbrushed out.

womens_suffrage_memorial_01.jpg
Women’s Suffrage Petition Memorial Melbourne

Suffragette emphasises at the beginning how devoted Maud is to Georgie, he’s her only son, she adores him. Why would she not put the same effort and commitment fighting for him as she does to the suffragette cause? The Maud they created in this film would explore every avenue, would demand the others help.

Edith Ellyn (played brilliantly by Helen Bonham Carter), a radical activist, based on the real-life suffragette Edith Garrod, and her supportive and committed husband would surely have helped Maud. (There is a brief mention that Edith’s husband went to prison twice for the cause and he plays an active albeit almost silent part!)

In fact, Georgie and Maud are too clean and well-dressed for the average worker in 1912 living in the squalid housing around the industrial factories of London. the opening scenes show the drudgery and relentless labouring required in places ignoring basic health and safety guidelines.

Another niggling point is when Georgie has a cough and is taken to Edith and her pharmacist husband for examination and free medicine. Given some barley sugar he doesn’t say thank you. Maud would have admonished his lack of manners. I mean this is a boy whose father makes him salute and thank the King’s picture every night.  The class system in Britain ingrained politeness and courtesy towards ‘your betters.’

Another minor irritant was Maud’s husband accusing her of wanting champagne on a beer budget… really? Doubt if that was a common expression among laundry workers in 1912 – he’d more likely berate her for trying to copy her ‘posh’ friends.

Perhaps the biggest failing in the film is not offering some joy.

I know the times were bleak for women, but I also know when a group of women with a common cause get together, we laugh, we dance, we take the mickey – and committed activists look after each other. They would not have Maud sleeping in a disused church if she is one of the inner circle.

Where were the fun scenes reliving successful operations? The frenetic scenes preparing banners, making the sashes and placards – some visual relief from the drabness and oppression?

I have happy treasured memories of Women’s Liberation meetings, Union of Australian Women events and International Women’s Day celebrations and marches. Despite  critics  wanting to portray feminists as dour, frigid and bitter, the term sisterhood is powerful has a different connotation for most women.

image

There could also have been more use of actual footage of the times for impact if the film was deftly edited like Selma. The actual footage used at the end of Suffragette is powerful and it shows the movement was a lot bigger than what the film suggested, but achieving the goal of the vote is years away.

In Suffragette, one scene comes close to showing camaraderie of sisterhood – when two of the characters (Violet and Maud) find a room to rent after a distraught Maud is locked out of home by her husband. The women sit on the ‘bed of nails’, which collapses accompanied by their giggles and laughter.

Women are adept at laughing in the face of adversity – gallows humour if you like – similar to soldiers under fire. The film lacked that important essence to take us on an emotional roller coaster – the audience needed to feel the ardour of these women, breathe their fire, be touched by their soul and sadness, but also their laughter, love, humanity and the solidarity that gave them the courage and spark to continue.

Two scenes stand out – a riot revealing the brutality of the police and onlookers and the tense scene where Emily Wilding Davison stepped out in front of the King’s horse. The film suggests it was deliberate suicide, yet this is debatable, especially when you look at archived footage.

Personally, I’d love a film to be made on the life of Emily, beginning with that horrific media grabbing action and then showing her journey. How and why she became a suffragette. And why so few people actually know or care about her life, preferring to define her by that one action.

We need to inspire more women and men to question how far we have come and the structural changes needed for equality and basic human rights.

images-10.jpeg

 

 

A Visit From Father Christmas

bth_christmas-quotes-sayings-cute-life-meaningful1

In 1959, Christmas changed dramatically for our family when my Mother went into labour and delivered a ‘Christmas Day baby.’

For as long as I can remember, my young sister Rita celebrates her birthday on the stroke of midnight Christmas Eve, to have a few moments of experiencing her own special day. I guess it’s not much fun when your birthday lands on a day everyone else receives presents!

Although Rita would be the first to admit she was often compensated with extra presents because she is also the youngest of six siblings and spent a good part of her life being ‘the baby’ to be spoiled.

Memoirs are the backstairs of history.

George Meredith

In 2003, whenever Mum stayed a few days with me, I recorded her talking about her life. These treasured memories still have to be fully typed, but I do it in small doses because hearing her voice sends me into an emotional spin. However, here is her description of Christmas 1959:

On Christmas Day, 1959, I had Rita. That Christmas some little boy had spread the story that there was no Father Christmas. ‘It’s your dad that puts the presents out,’ he told the children in the neighbourhood.

My eldest daughter Catriona and her best friend Anne Marie Docherty, who was the eldest in her family, determined to convince the children that ‘yes, there is a Santa’.

On Christmas morning Mary Docherty always went to early mass and she called in at 7.00am and asked the midwife how I was and the nurse said, ‘Oh she has a beautiful baby girl. At the moment she’s sitting up having tea and toast. The baby was born at six o’clock.’

‘Oh,’ said Mary, ‘that’s great.’

Mary went home to her house across the street and told her kids, who were now awake, ‘Do you know what Santa has brought Mrs McInnes? A beautiful baby girl!’

Her youngest daughter, Kathleen (8) said, ‘I knew there was a Santa Claus, that boy lied. Mrs McInnes wanted a baby girl and she got one.’

Well, the story went around the street and I think every child that lived in Davaar Road had to come up and see the Christmas baby that Santa brought Mrs McInnes. Rita’s birth proved Father Christmas was real!

Another neighbour, Christine McDonald had three sons and the eldest, Robert (6) got a post office set for Christmas. He came to see me and the baby with a telegram he had written, congratulating me on having Rita, my ‘Christmas Day baby’.

I’ve still got that telegram.  Poor Robert died last year – he wasn’t 50. I’ve still got that wee telegram he gave me and often think of him.

Aye, there was excitement that day.

When Rita started talking, she used to tell everyone, ‘I was born the same day as Jesus.’  Proud as punch when she said it!

Rita with great Aunt Teen
Baby Rita and Great Aunt Teen (Paternal Granny’s sister)

There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.

Graham Greene

That was my mother’s recollection when she was 83 years of age. Recently, my older sister Catriona (Cate), sent me a lovely vignette she wrote entitled ‘A Favourite Childhood Memory.’  This is the story of Rita’s birth from her memory:

Christmas 1959 is my favourite childhood memory, special to my family and one of the happiest times I remember. It was not the Christmas presents that Santa brought, but the special gift of life to our family in the form of a baby girl.

I remember my mother and father helping the four oldest of us get ready for the watch night service in Saint Ninian’s Church of Scotland parish church. As the eldest, I was charged with the task of keeping Iain, George and Mairi safe and together, which I did. I remember Dad telling me, Mum was not feeling well enough to go.  Dad would stay home with Mum and my youngest brother, Alistair who was almost two years old. The walk in the dark and cold with snow threatening, would be too much for him.

We enjoyed the church service. All my favourite hymns and carols were sung: Away in a Manger, Silent Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and my very favourite, O Holy Night. Afterwards, we briskly walked home, and were sure we spotted some snowflakes. It was looking good for a White Christmas after all.

When we got home, Mum was in her pink candlewick dressing gown and because I was aware she was having a baby, I started to put two and two together. ‘Is the baby coming?’I asked.

Mum said, ‘Yes, but keep it to yourself. I want the others to go to bed after supper and cocoa.’

In October of that year, I’d been hospitalised with a neck operation called a torticollis. I was still wearing a small surgical collar and exercising and building up my neck muscles several times a day. When I was in hospital some of the other patients pointed out to me that my Mum was not overweight, but pregnant. A shock indeed to a naïve ten year old.

Once the other children were in bed, I helped Dad tidy up. When two midwives arrived I offered to make them all a cup of tea. We placed a babies bath on the kitchen table, got the baby soap and new face washers and towels out. I had also placed guest towels and nice soap in the bathroom for when they needed to wash up.

I made some more tea and took it upstairs. Only Dad and the midwives were allowed into the room so I knocked gently on the door and handed in the tray.

My sister was born at approximately 3.00 am. Dad brought her down in a blanket and I marvelled at her small hands and feet. I saw the umbilical cord tied off, and it was explained to me what that was about.

Dad and I proceeded to wash and dry her gently. We put a nappy on her, Dad being an expert after the previous five children. I sat in a chair and held her. She smelt beautiful and felt so soft, I never wanted to let her go.

I held a bottle of boiled water and sugar to her lips and she drank. Mum’s milk had not come in yet so this satisfied her. After the Doctor had been, Dad took the baby to Mum where she was put in her cot.

I helped Dad put out Santa’s gifts on the beds of my sleeping brothers and sisters. I got a gold signet ring with my initial C and a warm pink hat and scarf set. As I went to bed I saw the snow start in earnest.

We had the whole street visit Christmas Day to see the new member of our family, Margaret Carol Mc Innes. The Carol was Mum’s only acknowledgement of Christmas. She laughed when the Doctor suggested Noel.  Margaret was named after her Godmother, whom we called Rita, a Scottish tradition to anyone named Margaret.

It’s a very special and magical memory. Rita and I, are still close today -I put it down to that bonding, when I helped bathe and feed her.

Mum and Rita.jpg
Mum and Rita at a few months old.

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 Hook

My memory of that night is different again. Catriona must have just crawled into the bed we shared and dropped off to sleep straight away. Perhaps when she lifted the blankets, the chill night air woke me, but I remember a thud as the presents ‘Santa’ had left slid off the bed onto the floor.

Excited, I sat up and peered at the bottom of the bed to see what presents were still there and grabbed the first one to open. ‘Treena, Treena, wake up! Santa’s been.’

Little did I know Treena had just managed into bed. She shrugged off my hand, and mumbled, ‘I know. Go back to sleep.’

I didn’t open the presents because I heard voices. I  recognised the deep rumble of Dad’s, but not the other voice. A sliver of light shone through the bedroom door, which Treena had left ajar.

I slid out of bed and tiptoed over to peek into the hallway bathed in an orange glow. Almost immediately I was swept up into my Dad’s arms.

‘Come and see what Father Christmas has brought Mummy,’ he said as he took me into their bedroom. I can remember others in the room, probably the midwives still tidying up and observing Mum who was propped up in bed with several pillows behind her.

Mum was white faced. Very white. As white as the shawl around a red-faced bundle in her arms. Dad bent down close to Mum and the baby, ‘Have you a kiss for your new baby sister and Mummy?’

‘Isn’t she beautiful?’ Mum said.

I clung to Dad’s neck. Mum looked different and the red-faced baby didn’t seem beautiful to me. I was hungry and wanted to open my presents, which I was sure were a lot more exciting than this baby. I probably said as much because I can remember the midwives laughing.

Much of the day remains a mystery but I do remember lots of people visiting, neighbours and relatives coming and going. With adults distracted and various children joining us in the lounge room, my brothers and I literally ran riot.

The McColgans lived across the road and had relatives staying. Carol, a McColgan cousin was 8 or 9, ages with my brother Iain whom she liked. They kissed behind the couch, or rather Carol kissed Iain. Perhaps it was all part of a game but what excitement and knowledge to tease him about for years.

When the baby’s name was announced and Mum chose Carol as a middle name with a Christmas ring to it, the McColgan’s cousin thought the baby was named after her and it seemed logical to me. I wonder where Carol is now?

Almost six decades have passed and that very special night is remembered every Christmas. A new baby is a miracle and Rita was/is special – girl number three to even up the family!

ritas wedding.png
The last of the siblings to marry Rita is a proud mother of 3 girls herself.

 Three different perspectives of the same event – what writers refer to as point of view. Details may be different in the story, but the most important points are the same.

On Christmas Day 1959 our family was changed forever by the miracle of birth and a delightful addition of a new baby sister!

We Came by Boat at Christmas Time

orion3
Orion – full steam ahead at sea. Photograph taken by & © Alan Judge (UK)

Check out this site for further details of the ship we came to Australia on in 1962. I’ve been thinking of that voyage because today, December 16th is the anniversary of our arrival in Melbourne at Station Pier. The ship finally docking at 8.00pm.

Where have those 53 years gone?

We were met by Dad’s sister, Chrissie and husband Bill, and their friends Edna and Ron Gray, Malcolm and Elizabeth Andree, Muriel and Eric Scrimshaw and Doreen and Dick Triggs (the parents of Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs).

All of those couples generously volunteered their cars and time knowing there were eight of us, plus luggage! What kindness, what generosity, what a welcome!

I’ve reminisced about our trip to Australia all those years ago – a voyage of discovery, which had a profound impact, etched on my memory…

Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.

Miriam Beard

In the city the other day, I lined up to view Myer windows – an annual Christmas event for Melbournites and one I remembered from that first Christmas here all those years ago.

DSC_1638-1-1.jpg
60 years of animated windows at Myer – Santa’s Journey into Space featured 1962

The migrant ship, P&O’s Orion left cold, foggy Tilbury Docks in London on November 14th,1962. The first stop Piraeus, Greece, in the Mediterranean before the liner, continued through the Suez Canal to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and onto an Australia in the full bloom of summer – hot, humid tropics all the way and my first experience of a heatwave.

An unforgettable month long voyage for nine-year-old me, born in Greenock, Scotland, the city with the highest rainfall in the United Kingdom.

The Orion, used as a troop ship during WW2 had been refitted to carry the army of assisted migrants to Australia and New Zealand in the late 50s and early 60s. She was the first British ship to have air-conditioning in all her public rooms so we were more fortunate than my father’s sister Chrissie and husband Bill who sponsored us to Melbourne after migrating in July 1952.

We were all considered ‘ten pound Poms’ although we were actually Scots.

 

Ten_pound_Poms_ad_2.jpg

The open and spacious design with sliding glass doors and removable walls, made the ship’s communal areas roomy and egalitarian. The Orion now a one class ship, sported breezy passageways and staircases with chromium and bakelite fittings; as well as the polished mahogany, found in wealthy British homes of the time. The ship suited tropical cruising and life on board definitely a jaw-dropping wonder to the majority of working class passengers, who like us were heading for what we hoped was ‘the promised land,’ sunny beaches and casual living.

Farewelling fogbound Tilbury
We began our journey across the sea
The apes of Gibraltar glimpsed
But only in our imagination
The Bay of Biscay tossed and pummelled
Brother George succumbed to seasickness
And I discovered my sea legs.
Piraeus, Greece glittered in the moonlight
Monuments of an ancient past shadowing a busy port.
Spruikers cluttered the docks
Committing daylight robbery
On gullible migrants
Sister Catriona and I hugged
Our Greek dolls while the boys discovered
Cars with no engines.
Bright traditional costumes of the dolls
soft, silken,beautiful and exotic.
Poukamiso – chemise, segouni – vest,
bodia – apron, zonari – sash, mandili – scarf
and tiny Tsarouhia – shoes.

Clothes never seen on the 500 migrants
Who shuffled on board that night
Belongings bundled in sheets
Squeezed into battered suitcases
Secured with string and hoisted on
Backs used more to manual labour
than dancing to bouzoukis
Greece an intriguing taste of
Somewhere different to Scotland
Our first foreign port, a window into another world.

We discovered the cabins could be stuffy, especially when shared with Mum and my five siblings. Not enough room to swing the proverbial cat after toddler Rita’s cot was set up. Did we care? Not really. We spent as many hours as possible away from the cabin, immersed in the swimming pool or roaming the various decks playing quoits, table tennis, hide and seek, getting into mischief while avoiding serious trouble.

images-11
The pool on board – courtesy Museum Victoria

The swimming pool an exciting magnet for most of the children on board. Many like us, had never been in a pool or been able to swim in the sea beyond paddling in the shallows while shivering through cool British summers. We loved watching the sailors clean and refill the pool with saltwater each day, even learning to swim aboard ship, as did many migrants. If you didn’t master swimming, you at least floated secure in a life ring and appreciated the relief from the heat.

When we crossed the equator and ‘met’ King Neptune I don’t think anyone escaped the shenanigans or sampling the pool. No plastic sandals needed here before getting in the water, nor danger of hypothermia – the climates experienced as we moved through various zones very different to Scotland!

 

images-10.jpeg

The ship steamed into the Suez Canal
To enter a land straight from
Arthur Mees Children’s Encyclopaedias.
Hours spent on deck peering through
Dad’s binoculars at pyramids, camels,
Sand dunes and a Bedouin unaware
Of our spying eyes as he prepared
Breakfast beside a solitary tent
The Valley of the Kings hugging
A horizon bathed in liminal desert dawn.

Closer to the ship a flotilla of Arab merchants
Beguiling the English Mrs Simpsons
And Scots Mrs MacGregors
Offering fancy leather goods,
Carved wooden elephants and watches
With rubber bands keeping hands ticking
Until the ‘Bum Boats’ skedaddled back to shore
A thief chased by the sergeant of Arms and
Caught by local police provides a distraction
Like an episode of Z-Cars or Softly Softly.
Everyone seeks a bargain and the banter
From ship rail to boats below ranged from
The comedic to course, respectful to rude.
While adults bargained, the Gully Gully Man
Fluted his cobra to awe and frighten children
The snake’s sewn mouth unnoticed as it uncoiled,
Swayed, stretched and struck before being grabbed
And thrown into a tense crowd
That evaporated squealing, like steam from
A whistling kettle.

Dad shared a cabin with the father of another large family in the cabin opposite to ours. Both men, in a two-berth cabin at the end of the corridor, worked out amicable arrangements to have private time with their spouses and family. Because Dad had been a shift worker his banishment to another cabin didn’t really affect us, although no doubt it affected Mum. We were delighted we actually saw more of him than we usually did.

A ship is a great adventure playground, and we made the most of it. We spent countless hours just standing on deck watching the ocean, fascinated by the dolphins, flying fish, the occasional albatross and of course watching for land when we were due to call into port. The sunrises and sunsets magical and memorable like the mesmerising sea.

220px-Pink-wing_flying_fish.jpg

Considered ‘all right for a girl’, I tagged along with older brothers Iain (11) and George (10) and their new friend Kenneth (12). They hatched exciting plans, whereas my older sister Catriona, who at thirteen attended the adult meal sittings with my parents, thought our games childish (and often she was right!).

Mature for her age, physically and mentally, Catriona was caught in that awkward in-between world of adolescence. The young deckhands ogled and whistled thinking she was older,but she pined for her school friends left behind in her first year at high school.

Colombo, Ceylon reached but a free Sri Lanka
Whispered chatter in dining halls and Kitchen
Of the ship. The lascar crew toiling at lower wages
Than white-skinned counterparts.
Colombo’s sweltering heat endured as
Dad searched for a ring for Mum, an anniversary looming.
We passed colourful saris and glossy black hair,
Boisterous beggars with blood-toothed grins advertising
Their love of Areca wrapped in betel leaves
Gobs of chewed nuts blackened by the sun
Dotted the streets. To my nine-year-old eyes
They were bloodstains. The smell of rotting vegetables
And sweaty humanity becoming the smell of death.
A cacophony of sounds, high pitched, persistent.
Buzzing flies biting, unfriendly like some people
Resentment at colonial betrayal simmering
Poverty displayed by stick legs and arms,
Gaunt faces, body sores, desperate words as
Crippled babies thrust into the faces
Of privileged whites streaming ashore.

Most days at sea on our month-long voyage
Spent exploring the one-class ship
Its First Class trimmings an exciting attraction
To our freewheeling gang of urban escapees
From the austerity of post war Britain.

One day, after seeing a school of flying fish the boys decided to go fishing although our only experience of this pastime in Greenock was catching tadpoles (we called them minnows) in jam jars, or  watching the tadpoles turn into frogs in our ‘secret lake’ (a big pond at the end of the Aileymill road).

English Kenneth described proper fishing, with a rod, hook and bait. We listened in awe at his expertise before scattering to find substitute equipment.

An empty toffee tin took the place of our usual jam jar. Discarded pieces of string and ribbon knotted together and tied around the rim of the tin transformed it into a ‘net’. Using orange peel as bait, we searched the decks for the best spot to launch our line and decided on a corner of the deck for crew only.

We had the run of the ship and within a couple of days knew it like our old neighbourhood ashore; certainly better than most adult passengers. We were rarely told to leave any area – an advantage of being a child.

Ignorant about the distance from the deck of the ship to the sea, and being children with an average height of four and half feet, we assumed our bundle of string more than adequate. We found a secluded corner, squeezed our skinny forms through the deck rails and hung precariously over the side.

cheekey-leveled

Our imagination only accommodated fish, pods of dolphins and fanciful birds like the albatross and pelican. The voyage beautiful and benign, providing a remarkable, unique time in our young lives. We concentrated on the task at hand, unaware of the dangers of falling into shark infested waters.

Several pairs of hands took turns lowering the tin down. Kenneth received a quick lesson on democracy à la large families. Our fishing line bounced its way down the side of the ship, but stopped well short of the enticing water line. A collective groan of disappointment manifested as downturned lips and wrinkled brows. What to do? Our mission a failure, our enthusiasm fizzling like a damp squib on Guy Fawkes Night.

What happened next is one of those unpredictable solutions children invent. With almost silent agreement, our aim changed from catching fish to seeing if we could guide the tin into an open porthole. This turned out to be a much more engaging project, requiring all the skill we could muster.

We speculated what was behind the porthole immediately below, and if we’d get into trouble, but any hesitation was brief, and dismissed. We were now commandos penetrating a German submarine with a secret weapon that would win the war. Our concentration so intense the shrieks of laughter from the swimming pool above and the roar of the ship’s engines below faded to be insignificant.

We even forgot our persistent rumbling tummies stirred by the ever present smells of food lingering in every nook and cranny of the Orion. Smells drifting from the dining rooms, restaurants and decks, and from the cabins below where many of the 500 Greeks who had boarded in Piraeus cooked exotic, alluring food.

The tin edged closer to the narrow opening and the capable hands of Iain guided it to success. In the celebration, he almost dropped the string, George bumped his head on the deck rail as he cheered and Kenneth saved me from sliding head first into the briny. A little huffed because he hadn’t been the pilot, Kenneth brought us back to reality with, ‘Gosh, let’s scarper.’

Iain dropped the string as if it was a death adder.

We extricated ourselves from the deck rails, but not before I glimpsed the angry face of the Maitre d’ peering up at us. On cue, music burst from the tannoy announcing the children’s sitting for lunch.

We raced back to the cabin to collect Mum, forgetting the initial shock of the Head Waiter’s face as we giggled and revelled in the thrill of mischief. He couldn’t recognise us from hundreds of children on board – could he?

We entered the dining room with some trepidation, beginning to worry about Mum’s reaction should the Maitre d’ make a fuss, and worse would Dad find out. Our bravado tested when we saw our fishing implements sitting among the paraphernalia of the Head Waiter’s workstation. The man himself, looming larger than his six foot physique,  stood at the entrance of the dining room, head poised like a Roman Emperor watching everyone troop to their designated tables.

His patrician nose that Dad joked was more of a limb than a feature, sniffed the air for miscreants and Mum, as she often did made a pun without realising it. ‘What’s got up his nose?’ she asked Gordon, our dining room steward.

Gordon, a young man from Barrhead who had taken a shine to our family,
whispered and pointed at our tin, ‘That landed through the porthole when we were setting the tables.’ He laughed and shrugged. ‘A kid’s prank but Himself sees it as sullying His dining room.’

‘Is that so,’ said Mum laughing. ‘Wee bisums were smart to get it inside without a boat!’

The boys flashed warning looks at each other and signalled to me to remain silent. Mum’s admiration would become admonition if she knew it was her children being ‘smart’.

Kenneth, already seated, buried his head in the menu refusing eye contact. If challenged, we’d be on our own. Mum smiled and started to chat to Kenneth’s mother as Gordon brought the meals. The Maitre d,’ at the other side of the room sorting out a dispute over seating, no longer a threat to us. We relaxed to enjoy the food.

Every meal on board delicious because of the variety served, and we were always allowed seconds. We left a Britain hit by recession and found being aboard the Orion a luxurious holiday resort.

Gordon indulged our every whim, taking a particular shine to my young brother Alistair, a six year old with a cherubic face and insatiable appetite. His record for “seconds” of favourite meals being six plates of mince and tatties! If the stewards ran a competition on the appetites of their charges, Gordon would definitely win.

We laughed at pods of dolphins and flying fish
Argued over whale sightings and horizon mirages
Had competitions to see who could get closest
To the seabirds landing on railings.
The Wandering Albatross or pretty Petrels
Mesmerising. Each day fascinating.
The baby buried at sea, a stumbled upon ceremony
We didn’t let spoil the rest of our day
Only adult reflections consider sadness, social justice…

We didn’t have to go to school on board, but if we did attend classes, they were only for a couple of hours in the morning and we were given free ice cream. Ice cream in Scotland was sharing a family block after the Sunday roast – if the household budget could afford it. To be offered cones every day, a special treat indeed. However, we didn’t need too much persuading to go to school because the volunteer teachers were a lot of fun.

Unknown-1.jpeg

Perhaps it was because of the comfortable non-compulsory nature of the classes, or their multi-aged composition, but whatever the reason, I absorbed the lessons, even learning all about L.S.D. (money sums, not the drug!). I became so proficient in maths that when I arrived in Australia Mr Tinney, the Croydon Primary School headmaster wanted me to go into Grade Six. Thank goodness Mum, worried about socialisation and making friends in my own age group, insisted promotion to Grade Five was enough of a challenge especially since George was also promoted to Grade Six. However, being the youngest in class dogged me for the rest of my school life.

From the morning wake-up calls broadcast into our cabin: ‘Wakey, Wakey Rise and Shine, it’s breakfast time on the Orient Line,‘ to the host of organised parties, dress-up competitions, deck games and Housey Housey (bingo) plus talent contests; the few weeks at sea provided pleasant memories.

The ship sailed into Fremantle at dawn
Yet most passengers crowded the decks
Eager for the first glimpse of a new homeland.
And to our surprise the skirl of bagpipes
Drowned seagulls screech, as a young woman
Marched the pier welcoming her sister home.
The loving gesture warmed hearts, calmed fears
The upheaval and journey to the unknown less daunting
As the strains of Waltzing Matilda skirled skywards.

Sultry summer air caressed our skin, a hot December sun disappeared into the sea when we prepared to disembark from P&O’s Orion in 1962, thirty-two days after leaving fogbound Tilbury.

Night now dropped a velvet blanket from the sky, no gradual, long twilight here like the Scottish gloaming.

images-13.jpeg

Amid harsh fluorescents, the inky sky disappeared as we docked and Aunt Chrissie grinned and waved below, jostled by hundreds of clamouring crowds on Station Pier. We interrupted Dad’s dinner to tell him we saw someone who looked like my godmother, Ina, his cousin. Five of us had heads crammed out the porthole and the lady yelled ‘are you the McInneses?’

We all nodded together and watched tears gather in her eyes to flow down her cheeks when Dad eventually joined us. A frightening crack as the bunk bed groaned under all the weight meant several of us scurried down and raced to be first at the deck rails to squeeze between adult legs and continue our observations of the chaos below.

Tears of joy stained Dad’s cheeks on seeing his only sister after a decade. His initial disappointment as the ship manoeuvred into port that the grimy part of Melbourne visible ‘looked just like Glasgow’ forgotten.

However, on deck, I trembled at the whispers of older boys that Christmas didn’t happen here. The hot night air and absence of snow was certainly unChristmassy!

Fortunately, on the way to our new home in bushy Croydon, Aunt Chrissie’s blue Ford Consul stopped beside a large department store. Myer windows blazed light and colour onto the deserted streets.

Led over to view the display of mechanical puppets narrating Santa’s journey into Space my child eyes ballooned. Had we arrived in Fairyland?
This new country promised an exciting and magical life.

Christmas did happen in summer and our first Australian Christmas proved to be as memorable as the eventful voyage on SS Orion and that very special welcome the evening of December 16, 1962.

images-12.jpeg

How sad that boat arrivals are now demonised and detained when we were welcomed with open arms. My wish this Christmas is that camps on Nauru and Manus Islands are closed, refugees are welcomed to Australia and we again care about human beings to build and share this land.

 

Stories and Storytelling – There’s a Quill in Quilting.

DSC_1317-1

There are many ways to tell a story but as a writer, I prefer words. Photographers, painters, and sculptors tell a story with their work by artistically expressing whatever they are seeing, feeling, thinking about, or wanting to share.

Interpreted by the beholder there may be more ambiguity than if the story told in words. However,   freedom of expression, in an artistic way by whatever medium, creates a narrative.

Poetry and prose may have diverse interpretations too, especially in English. Obscurity, double entendres, irony, and satire, can have readers and listeners scratching their heads and debating meaning.

Another way to have artistic expression and tell a story is craft. Craft takes many forms. In my Facebook newsfeed, I discovered a Scottish artist making political statements and commenting on the human condition through book sculptures.

_80086613_paper_tea2
The words read: “Nothing beats a nice cup of tea (or coffee) and a really good BOOK.”

The artist’s story plus the story of the sculptures are in a book available at Book DepositoryThese powerful visual stories began several years ago when an anonymous artist despaired at talk of the death of the book and public libraries!

“One day in March 2011 staff at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh noticed a wonderful paper sculpture left on a table. Carved from paper and mounted on a book, it bore a tag expressing support for the Library’s work. From then until November 2011 nine more mysterious paper sculptures appeared in arts venues throughout Edinburgh, including the National Library of Scotland, the Filmhouse cinema, the National Museum of Scotland and the Scottish Storytelling Centre.”

I’ve written about Yarn (Bombing) Art and local groups Urban Yarn Art and their creation of a Storybook Yarn Art Trail using knitting as an expression of artistry and storytelling skills. This year community house Longbeach Place prepares to turn their garden into a delightful place to retell stories of elves and fairies. When I was teaching this week the props were being prepared:

As mentioned in my last post, my older sister stayed with me this week and as usual she brought her current quilting project. I’ve written before about the wonderful stories found in quilts. Today quilts are pieces of art with quilting a popular craft. However, in earlier times, quilts kept people warm, were used for bedding, or hung as a screen or protection against intruders when communal living was the norm. The majority of people too poor to buy blankets made their own.  If you wanted warmth, the women in your family, made a quilt from old clothing and scraps of cloth.

Cate is a dedicated and talented quilter and I’ve written about her ANZAC block, which is now on an international tour – one of many exhibitions commemorating the centenary of WW1. Cate told the story of my Father’s cousin George who died on active service and is buried in Egypt. The other quilters honoured relatives too, illustrating that quilting, like writing serves to record our stories and keep memories alive.

In the past and in some cultures today, special quilts are made for newborn babies, for aged or sick family members and for those dying or dead. Quilts provide warmth and comfort – physically and emotionally – gifts on special occasions like weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and to emigrants or travellers as reminders of home. The quilts made by African slaves in America were believed to contain secret messages – the patterns providing information and direction to the ‘underground railway’ and  freedom.

My mother made a quilt for our journey to Australia using scraps of material from clothes we’d outgrown or earmarked for the ragbag. If I close my eyes, I see Mum, Cate and myself sitting by the fireside hand sewing the quilt. (My stitches easy to pick, more like tacking!) When I look at or touch the material, I remember the item of clothing and a story is triggered. Historically, traditional quilts were made by hand. The quilt from Scotland in need of repair, not surprising after half a century (and my poor sewing skills), but the emotion it cradles timeless.

DSC_1319-1

DSC_1320-1

On the night my mother died, the palliative care nurse suggested we put on the bed the beautiful quilt Cate had made  Mum. (I can picture Mum now sitting in her armchair with the quilt over her legs.) The lovely colours and patterns softened the harshness of the white hospital bedclothes, made the clinical environment more homely. That quilt forever entwined with Mum’s life and legacy and the love between her and Cate.

Quilts painstakingly hand sewed in various patterns and styles gave talented women an outlet for their imagination to make intricate patterns and tell stories about family or community through the materials and styles used. There are great quilts, many in America where quilters are a huge community. Immigrants contribute their traditional patterns and skills: the Japanese and Chinese expertise with silk fabrics, the European links with embroidery and design.

Quilts are an important part of our heritage. It’s not surprising that Cate’s latest project involving the making of an international quilt is dominated by American quilters because of the popularity of quilting in the United States.

My sister joined a Facebook page where quilters swap quilt blocks. When I googled hexagon quilting on Facebook it returned  396,000 results in 0.44 seconds!  Cate is in one of three groups that limit membership to a manageable 300. You must apply to join the closed or secret groups and currently the one she is in has 105 members. They make hexagon blocks or hexis to insiders.

They aim to make an international quilt – you make a quilt block and post it to others in the group and they return the favour. This block swapping will result in everyone having enough blocks to make a quilt to use, to hang, to frame, to gift or to enter in exhibitions. In a folder you can choose preferences – some people prefer floral material with pansies, others nominate a particular colour, Cate’s criteria: ‘I’ve never met a hexi I didn’t like!’

She showed me the blocks received already and the ones she will post in return:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There are parallels between quilting and writing. Quilters and writers both express themselves depending on different perspective, viewpoint, life experience and emotion. They work alone or collaborate as imagination dictates to produce an artistic unique artefact.

  1. From a central idea, a design or pattern for the quilt and a theme or keyword or character for a story – the project begins.
  2. Quilters and writers begin brainstorming. For quilters its shapes, colours, fabrics to use and whether to do appliqué or patchwork. For writers, it’s outlining, collating research and piecing ideas together for a story, the characters’ traits. There is an initial prompt, trigger, idea, burst of enthusiasm, desire to create, a vision of the future.
  3. Organising begins of the blocks whether material or words: what is the desired impact on the viewer or reader, the layout and setting, the personality or substance of material or character, is the desired effect mystery, humour, traditional or innovative, past or present tense, will it engage emotions, be memorable, be valued…
  4. The quilter collects and coordinates fabrics and templates and starts to stitch towards the overall effect. The writer develops the outline and works out the characters and their journey. Always the possibility of change and rearranging.
  5. There will be cutting, trimming, swapping of blocks – cutting and pasting, editing of words.
  6. Layers are organised and final stitching brings the quilt together. Writers move from rough draft to corrections to final edit. A finished quilt, a completed story, both a journey and a gift to the receiver and the creator.

Memorial quilts commemorate lives, increase awareness of a particular event and even raise money for a special cause. Cate’s ANZAC block similar to my poem for the Calais refugees.

Cate's entry
Cate’s entry

Quilting and writing both have a long and unique history. The powerful symbolism of quilt patterns and the power of words to record stories show humanity has more in common than what separates us.

Check your linen cupboard or perhaps your bed and think of the stories that quilt is telling and pick up your pen and write because as this quote doing the rounds of Facebook suggests stories do indeed bring us together and make the world a better place.

10891521_691187197668982_466059217931982032_n