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

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

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

Empathy

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

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

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

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

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

Wikipedia entry

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

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

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

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

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

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Mt Suilven Scotland – Wikipedia

A Positive Ageing Story

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

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

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

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

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It is ‘Herstory’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy is too hurt and stunned to have sympathy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Generation Gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Triggered Memories of My Mountain Climbed

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

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approaching The Storr

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do Border Controls and Building Barriers Quarantine Our Humanity?

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Backpacker Statue, Irkutsk Russia

Passports, Visas, Customs Declarations and Border Control all part of travelling overseas today. I’ve had my fair share of good and bad experiences to write about, and they replay like a home movie as the media focus on Trump’s demand for a wall, and Australia is in the hot seat for disregarding human rights whenever it comes to homeland security and asylum seekers.

Every day the News triggers memories or provides prompts to put those elusive words on the blank page – but how to make them meaningful, interesting or thought-provoking is a different matter.

How to give readers a ‘takeaway’ to inspire, enlighten, encourage thoughts and emotional engagement – maybe even travel or share stories themselves?

I can but try – and if it becomes another ramble I hope you enjoy the photographs…

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Panoramic view of Irkutsk Railway Station

When I revisit my travel diary of travelling in Mongolia and Russia in 2017, I recall a host of other places and compare the experiences.

I admit to having lived a lucky and sheltered life regarding travel, holding a British and Australian passport, I’ve never been refused entry to a country I’ve wanted to visit – even if obtaining a visa to certain countries has been long and/or an expensive process.

It’s interesting to reflect in the context of today’s world, as well as the past, and realise  how privileged I’ve been and still am because of the citizenship and passport held, and having the finances to travel – even if most of it done on the cliched ‘smell of an oily rag’.

Anyone who has been to Russia will tell you, the visa process is lengthy and complicated so I left acquiring a Russian visa to Heidi, a magnificent asset to Flower Travel, the company I used to plan the trip of a lifetime on the Trans Siberian Train.

The five days in Mongolia and 18 days in Russia fulfilling what I wanted: to meet the locals, experience their culture, traverse the land visiting historical sites, museums, art and craft galleries and stay in a variety of accommodation: a Mongolian ger camp, hostels, homestays, hotels and of course the train.

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Supplying a current photo to their exact specifications the most difficult part of the procedure with the young woman at the local chemist spending a long time and many takes before her cross-checking on the Embassy’s website assured accuracy.

However, even after meticulous filling out of forms, when I opened the registered parcel and checked the passport details as advised,  I panicked, anxiety levels sky-rocketing.

Due to leave in a week my hands shook as I rang Heidi:

‘I’ve received my passport…’

‘Wonderful,’

‘But there’s a mistake, it’s the wrong name.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Along the bottom, there’s a strip of white with a barcode and some Russian letters and the name is Margaret instead of Mary.’

‘Oh, don’t worry about that, I don’t think the typists they have at the Embassy are too careful – in my passport at that spot they have Helga.’

‘Helga, instead of Heidi? ‘

“Yep.’

‘Yet I had to supply all the places I’ve ever studied and the name of the manager in my last job, even if it was years ago and he may be dead!’

‘That’s right, but you are all set to go, trust me.’

I did trust Heidi because she had just returned from travelling the Trans Siberian and had organised a detailed and exciting itinerary for me as a solo traveller over 60 and generously shared insider tips.

I looked forward to a 25-day trip from Ulaanbaatar to Helsinki within my budget with the major difference compared to years ago being technology.  I used Facebook as well as Messenger to record a lot of the trip and to keep in touch with my daughters.

Social media cops a lot of criticism but it was a godsend for me when travelling – especially since the video chats were free as long as I had access to Wifi.

When a bomb exploded in the subway in St. Petersburg on April 3, 2017 and I was due to travel to Russia on April 5th my daughters were understandably worried.

It was a suicide bombing carried out by Akbarjon Jalilov, a 22-year-old Kyrgyz-born ethnic Uzbek and naturalized Russian citizen. He was among the 16 dead.

In the weeks after the bombing, authorities arrested 11 people in St. Petersburg and Moscow on suspicion of involvement in the attack. They were from Central Asian countries and the Investigative Committee later said the bombing, which injured about 50 people, was the work of “a radical Islamist terrorist community” but did not name any group. No organization claimed responsibility.

It meant the military and security were more obvious during the period I travelled and it reminded me of Northern Ireland in the 70s when I visited relatives in Belfast and Dromore.

Random acts of violence by disgruntled citizens, rebels, and zealots of various religious or ethnic persuasion are the reason most governments use to increase their security and tighten their borders, whether this actually deters or stops fanatics is debatable.

Messages Between MJ and me, April 2017

Missed video call at 3.58pm 

Only one bar of Wifi

All good, just happy you’re safe and arrived alright!!!

I’m going to have a shower will keep trying for a video chat then I’m going for a walk before dark. Will try again – what time is it there? Don’t want to wake you up too early, or miss you if going out.

Don’t stress! Go out and explore!! We are fine, just wanted to check in and see how your flight was xoxoxo It is 4.05pm here on Saturday. What time is it there xoxo

I think it’s 1.51 in afternoon – China is 3 hours behind and Mongolia is 2.

That’s good. We are at Southland. Just finishing shopping then heading home…

Flight was better than expected although not much sleep. Security a bit of a nightmare and confusion but thank goodness I didn’t have drama like some. Pretty used to it all now. My protheses caused issues at Melbourne with new machine that body scans. Young man embarrassed when I explained anomaly and asked a female to body search me. Thank God, China and Mongolia don’t have that super dooper tech yet!

Sorry it was an issue but glad you okay. Xoxox

I’m tired but okay. Eyes aching because of lack of sleep, pollution etc. but otherwise honky dory xoxox

Missed video call 5.55pm

Hey Mum, Anne told me about Russia! Scary! So glad you are safe and okay. I’m about to leave for work but if you need to talk or anything I’ll be home in 4 hours. Xoxoxo Love you!!! Xoxoxo

I’m fine darling. I nearly rang last night, not about Russia, but because that meal I bought to thank my guides decided to erupt inside me. Several pairs of knickers later and a stomach sore from vomiting, I went to bed and slept right through until Anne messaged me. So unless the terrorists make me eat, I think I’ll survive! As explained to Anne, please don’t worry if you don’t hear from me for a couple of days because communist countries tend to be heavy-booted. I expect travel delays. I will definitely be in touch when I can. Xxx

That sucks being sick, hopefully it clears up soon. But yes, we won’t panic (we will still worry since that is just what we do!) but just let us know when you can. Love you xoxo

Will do. Yes, who would have thought my last night in Mongolia would be giving their plumbing a workout and me washing pants. But glad it hit me here and not on the train. I’ll stick to cups of soup that I brought and dried crackers so won’t starve. xx Love you heaps. Hope work goes well.

Facebook Post April 4, 2017

Heading for the train station to go to Irkutsk. A last walk around the city and a few observations. Its holidays and lovely to see young boys having great fun in the park throwing an empty plastic bottle over a wooden rail as if playing volleyball. The little buildings used as refreshment places and shops are popular. Why is a bald man leaving the hairdressers grinning? Hope the young girl selling fresh strawberries at the traffic lights makes a quid. The man selling seeds and beans from the back of his van multi-skilled as he pierces a woman’s ears! Mary & Martha named their shop because of the Bible! Two soldiers are noticeable at parliament building probably because of news from St Petersburg. Old nomadic couple sitting sipping fermented milk with an open tin box for donations and a set of scales – interesting way to find your weight. Memorial to the Beatles a surprise but not the manic traffic. No wonder they have restrictions to travel. Most cars are secondhand Japanese or Korean and you can only drive on the days your number plate allows – even businesses. No exemptions. Near the hotel, I paused outside the national school of music and soaked in a beautiful song. Farewell Mongolia and thank you.

 

Oceans, seas, rivers or lakes, mountain ranges and forests are geographical features that form natural borders, but for centuries, usually after wars and invasions, borders have been man-made and their upkeep a military exercise. Imaginary lines or outposts mutually agreed or imposed to keep people in and most importantly, others out.

Building barriers not new.

In Roman times, Hadrian’s Wall was built with the aim of keeping marauding Scots out of Roman England, the Great Wall of China was ostensibly erected to keep out the Mongols,  and plenty of walled cities developed in Europe and around the world.

Border control means measures adopted by a country to regulate and monitor its borders. … It regulates the entry and exit of people, animals and goods … and in modern times it aims to stop terrorism and detect the movement of criminals across borders.

However, to defend these arbitrary borders takes time and effort, money and resources and in the case of modern-day barriers like The Berlin Wall, the Korean Demilitarized Zone, the Israeli Gaza security barrier and West Bank wall, and the current US/Mexican wall – countless lives have been lost to protect the integrity of something entirely made-up by political rulers at a particular point in history.

Governments have always regarded the ability to determine who enters or remains in their territories as a key test of their sovereignty, especially after conflicts like World War I where the winners rewarded allies with lands – actions that caused resentment and many of the problems today.

I can remember how much John Lennon’s Imagine resonated with my generation as the Vietnam War raged – the first war to be televised – so many of us desired his dream, consistently dismissed as ‘unimaginable’ and utopian.

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I’d been warned by Heidi, that the train is thoroughly searched before leaving Mongolia and then a few metres over the border, it is the Russian authorities turn.

‘The record delay is 13 hours,’ Heidi said, ‘but I don’t think you’ll suffer that horror.  However, be prepared.’

“My old Girl Guide motto,’ I said, assuring Heidi I’d have a good book, crossword puzzles, snacks, and most of all patience in my luggage. I’ll need the latter, I thought, as images of Murder On The Orient Express and several other movies about trains stuck out in the middle of nowhere flashed through my mind.

Five fast-paced, amazing days in Mongolia ground to a halt as our train and its occupants stuttered over the border to spend three hours being inspected by grim-faced and sharp-tongued Mongolian and Russian authorities,  doing ‘their duty’. 

Now would be the testing time – will the contradiction in my passport matter, are Margaret and Mary considered so similar in Russia? Fear began to gnaw at my stomach…

I know it was a customs/border security check and rarely in any country, in my experience, are the personnel conducting the checks super friendly but there is a difference between curtness and courtesy.

Facebook Post April 5, 2017

Left Mongolia and after a very long journey and overnight on the train, I have arrived at my homestay with Olga in Irkutsk. The border a nightmare that lasted several hours. Mongolian and Russian border security competing to see who can out-Nazi each other. I was relatively unscathed because a tourist but locals had bags searched while being cross-questioned. Door slamming, luggage compartments grunting and groaning, cardboard boxes ripped open and lots of yelling and some arguing. Soldiers with sniffer dogs, torches, scanners for retina checks – the works.

Eugene, my guide for the next few days, warned me there will be lots of passport checks but hopefully no more wholesale custom crap. I was adopted by a lovely lady, Nara, on the train grateful I let her and husband use my adaptor to charge their phones. Amazing what you can learn from sharing family photos on your phone and sign language. The journey through Siberia alongside Lake Baikal stunning, a sensory overload even though heaps of snow and now as I sit in Olga’s comfortable home listening to the snow melt outside my window and the joyous sound of children playing ,I’m gradually losing the rhythm of the train and the creaking and groaning of the swaying carriages, the growling hum of the diesels wheels against the rails. A group of teenagers are having a snowball fight – takes me back to my childhood in Scotland!

The fastidiousness of the border guards understandable due to the explosion in St Petersburg underground but I was grateful for the friendliness of some of the passengers aboard the train and the beauty of the scenery as we sped through the night … all helped me to relax and enjoy my holiday.

Leaving Mongolia there was a vast brown landscape, plains dotted with horses, rugged mountains in the distance and occasional reminders of winter with swathes of snow lying unmelted.

Semi-industrial towns and white-topped gers clustered in villages and camps. Then into Russia – fairytale Siberia with skeletal trees, frozen rivers and lakes…

Messages Between MJ and me, April 2017

Hi love I am safe in Irkutsk with a nice lady and her husband. There is WiFi. Not sure what time it is there or here for that matter – late afternoon. Train trip was okay and people friendly. Met by Eugene. This place has population 600,000. Next place for one night has population 2000! Got my train tix for rest of trip so far so good. Hope all is well there Xx Sorry if mistakes but fat fingers – hope you understand okay

Yay you arrived safely!!! It’s just after 7pm here (was feeding the dog so only just saw your messages!) How was the train ride? Helen says hello and that she is glad you’re safe…  Anne popped round last night…  Aurora misses you (so do I since the house is way too quiet)… I’m alright… Barbara rang me after work yesterday worried about you and Russia…  How was it getting into Russia? Are they on high alert after everything that has happened? Love you xoxoxoxo

Hi love just had a wonderful hot shower. The border was crap. They could teach the nazis. I was ok but Anna who shared my berth had to open every package and a cardboard box. She had bought stuff in Mongolia so had most locals because cheaper I guess, but 3 hours of banging seats and doors and yelling. Soldiers came on with torches checked every crevice. Sniffer dogs. Portable scanners for retina checks against passports. Cross questioning. And that’s a normal day apparently. Anna was 62 and no English but we shared pictures of our children on phones etc she was so worked up about the border checks before it happened but then she’s lived through Stalinism and all the other changes. I just smiled and kept saying tourist. Xx

Another lady Nara adopted me and when no one seemed to be there to meet me she was going to ring the travel office. Had her husband carry my bags and someone else search the platform. When Eugene found me he was all apologetic – no one had said what carriage and he started at one end of platform and worked his way to the other. Olga the lady here is very nice and her English quite good. Her husband friendly too but his English not so good. They have gone out – very trusting. And I have my own key. I may go for a walk but at the moment need to get my head around things and organise my case. Xx

That’s a bit scary but glad people were friendly and helpful xoxox That’s great you can come and go as you please and have some privacy… You have fun exploring, please be safe – I know stuff is out of your control but Anne and I really did have a big fright when we heard about the terror attack on the subway. Love you xoxoxo

I can’t afford to get cold feet or be scared love. One day at a time and do try not to worry. Look after yourself. Xx

… Yes don’t let fear rule your exciting adventure but still just have your wits about you!  Love you xoxoxo

Will do. Xx

Is a Peaceful World Without Borders A Fantasy?

Borders help create “otherness” and generate fear. If there was free movement of people there could be a reduction in flag-waving and overt nationalism and more understanding and tolerance of difference.

Allegations raised on ABC Four Corners a few days ago about the Australian government stopping Saudi women from seeking asylum in Australia and heart-rending scenes of a young girl being forced onto a plane in the Philippines, to return to Saudi Arabia to never be heard of again, were distressing and shameful beyond belief. 

The ABC claims that Australian Border Force officers have been accused of targeting vulnerable Saudi Arabian women travelling to our shores, cancelling their visas and returning them to transit countries. The issue got worldwide attention when in January of this year, when 18-year-old Saudi Rahaf al-Qunun, pleaded for asylum while holed up in a Thai hotel room.

Currently, we have refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi stuck in a Thai prison because Interpol and the Australian authorities stuffed up communication and Bahrain demands his extradition for alleged crimes. Hakeem has been granted refugee status in Australia, is on his way to being a model citizen and I would have thought the Australian Government should have and could protect him, but apparently, it has to be left to celebrities and sporting personnel, and the media.

Ironically, the same media that whipped up fear of the other, immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers… with headlines about hordes, queue jumpers, illegal immigrants, Australia being swamped by boats, our way of life being destroyed, traditions being wrecked, terrorists sneaking in… ad nauseam!

Words are powerful and when newspaper headlines and TV and Radio broadcasters continually and consistently use derogatory or false names for refugees and immigrants and cast aspersions on their character and motivation it affects how they are welcomed or rejected.

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Let’s build bridges not walls

At the Australian National University in the 1970s, I studied  Modern Revolutionary History with Professor Daphne Gollan and Revolts & Insurgencies with Professor Geoffrey Bartlett,  plus Russian writers:  Dostoyevsky,  Pushkin,  Solzhenitsyn,  Tolstoy,  but perhaps the most memorable impact came from Hungarian Arthur Koestler’s, Darkness at Noon.

I recalled that book when I saw the terror on the wrinkled face of the grandmother, sharing the berth on the train to Irkutsk.

She lived through Stalinism, the bloodbath of Perestroika as the Soviet Union disintegrated, and now the reign of Putin.  I watched beads of sweat gather on her upper lip, her hands shake as she opened and closed her passport and unzipped her bags waiting for the inspection.  She checked and double-checked her bundle of receipts. 

When the uniformed officer came into our cabin, he made her unpack every case and package.  He cross-questioned her on what she bought,  peered at receipts,  stared into her face at close quarters willing her to admit to lies or a mistake.

In the other carriages shouting, scraping, banging, dragging noises, wood against wood, metal against metal, boots echoing on the train’s floor.  The stillness of the night shattered by military activity throughout the train corridors while the engine hummed and generated electricity.

I unzipped my one bag and offered my passport for inspection, which was handed to another officer who stood in the corridor holding a laptop open.  She scanned my passport and like her companion stared long and hard at me making my stomach somersault.  

I swallowed hard,  hoping I looked innocent – crazy because I was –  but security of all persuasions scare me.  I don’t know why but nerves tingle and I feel I’m going to be accused and forced to admit guilt for something I didn’t do.

Snatches from old movies and books rattle in my head.

Born eight years after the end of the war in Europe and part of the generation to first experience television, endless images of escaped POWs,  Jewish and other refugees fleeing Nazi or Stasi brutality, and of course, John Wayne winning the war, are embedded in my psyche. 

  • How do people on false papers,  or with something to hide, manage to fool security?
  • How do they keep their cool?
  • How do innocent or frightened people recover from harsh treatment at borders?
  • Those poor Saudi women, those terrified Rohingya refugees, those asylum seekers stuck on Nauru and Manus Islands for years… waiting for enough people to find courage and compassion…

The last time I had been ordered around with one syllable words like ‘out’ ‘give’ ‘sit’ and ‘here’ without a ‘please or thank you’ was in 1984 ( an apt year)  when John and I were on a Cosmos tour of Europe and in a bus crossing from Switzerland into Germany.

The intense fear I felt on the bus, despite documents being in order, returned while sitting in the train carriage in Russia.  A six-foot uniformed, armed man towering over you and demanding ‘passport’ is intimidating no matter where you are. 

Minutes of examining passport photograph and visa stamps – silent but for the flicking of pages interrupted by occasional glances.  Nerve-wracking in the extreme.

In Germany, once the guards left the bus, conversation resumed at record levels, and more than one person imagined aloud the plight of the Jewish people under the Third Reich.

And to think the British people voted for Brexit and want to return to increased border checks!!

Three hours at the border or 13 hours a disconcerting run-in with authority in a foreign country always a holiday negative. Border checks a reality to be prepared for with patience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memories triggered

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

My Facebook Post May 6th 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                        Jane Austen’s, Pride and Prejudice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane Austen Perennially Popular

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane Austen observed – everything.

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

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

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

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

Letter to James Stanier Clarke, 1 April 1816

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

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

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

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

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Discovering A Different Jane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                            Anne Elliot, Persuasion

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

Henry the 4th

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

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

Henry the 6th

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

Edward the 4th

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

Edward the 5th

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

Richard the 3d

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

Henry 7th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

she concludes with –

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

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

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

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

When History Is Fashionable

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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What Influences Fashion?

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

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

Revolutions and wars are big influences.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bustle killed the shawl as a fashionable accessory.

dress with bustle

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

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

Lizzie Bennet’s Wedding Dress?

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

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

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

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

The Provenance of the Gown an interesting story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Yet Another Sidetrack… Huguenots

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proof refugees enrich society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A woman Jane Austen would have admired and loved!

 

Ducks and Albatrosses Down Under

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The beginning of the year always a mixed blessing because January 10th is John’s birthday and a reminder my husband and best friend is no longer around, yet it is a new year and the future beckons and being a glass-half-full person, I look forward to whatever challenges await.

For the last sixteen years, the girls and I have visited Stony Point each January to reflect and remember John – and yes, we chat or share our thoughts with him.

Whenever I give my writing class an exercise to write about their happy place, or a place where they feel serene, I have Stony Point in mind.

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Serenity Writing Exercise

Once a year, sometimes more often, I visit Stony Point on the outskirts of Melbourne. This tip of the Victorian coast looks across to French Island among other smaller islets and the tide flows out to the sea. There is a pier always populated with anglers – more in some seasons than others.

There is a ferry to French Island and half the pier is now fenced off for Navy patrol boats installed during John Howard’s ‘be alert not alarmed’ crusade.

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John requested his ashes be scattered where they would be carried out to sea, being ex-Royal Navy, John was more comfortable on the water than land and Stony Point fitted the bill.

There are mini-wetlands (or mud flats) at Stony Point frequently visited by shearwaters, pelicans and of course the ubiquitous seagulls. The area is attractive to fishermen and regardless of the season, you will always see boats coming and going.

The gutting and scaling table regularly visited by a host of birds who seem to know just when to land and wait for a feed. The take-offs and jockeying for advantageous positions to catch thrown leftovers provide a rambunctious display by the birds, especially the pelicans.

My daughters laugh at my delight and are convinced I have the largest collection of photographs of pelicans in the world! This year, I think they had a bet going and were counting how many pictures I took – I never discovered whose guess was correct!

Many people visit Stony Point and there is a caravan park with permanent residents as well as frequent holidaymakers. Every day there could be bushwalkers, anglers, picnickers, fossickers, commuters to French Island, naval personnel from nearby Cerberus base and a handful of locals who operate a rundown cafe/shop.

But there are times, like the other day, when we were the only ones soaking up the serenity for an hour or so before one boat returned and two families arrived to visit.

I’m sure others like me,  come to sit or walk by the short strand of sand or along the pier. Others relax while waiting for the ferry to French island. The kiosk, the railway station, the car park – so little change in sixteen years.

Stony Point is the end of the line for the train – a little diesel that comes from Frankston. The station personnel seem to be from another era of railway culture – a more friendly era – attuned to the age of steam perhaps – like my Dad and Grandfather…

However, just like the rest of the Victorian rail system, upgrading is happening to the only non-electrified rail line operated by Metro. There will be electrification to Hastings soon, but who knows when the upgrade will reach Stony Point, a place where change is rare.

 

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John’s Story Forever Linked to Stony Point

When I think of John, I remember his love for the sea. The vivid memories of years in the Royal Navy he loved to share. His time at sea an escape from a violent step-father. It gifted skills and room to grow. Life below deck a creative exercise in space management and curled in a hammock beneath clambering pipes was not conducive to sleep. In the 1950s and 60s, he served on destroyers and stowed belongings in lockers between gurgling pipes. Ironically, the life he loved contaminated him with asbestos…

When I think of John, I recall he joined the navy as a fifteen year old ‘boy sailor’ and said he learned to respect and consider others, to cook, clean, and iron, to share, to care for himself, to operate radar and radio, sort and deliver mail, be the butcher and food buyer for the mess, and also train as a deep-sea diver. He mastered calligraphy and latch-hook weaving and became the Mediterranean Fleet’s high jump and long jump champion in Malta. Above deck, he discovered the pleasure and benefits of breathing fresh sea air;  the joy of time to scan for exotic lands, learn to read the stars, be entertained by dancing dolphins, flying fish, and the unforgettable sight of the majestic blue whale.

When I think of John, I hear his voice reciting poetry and doggerel, quoting favourite passages from books he loved or people he admired (he could recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address!) and singing songs from favourite entertainers. A man of few words, each sentence counted. John didn’t do small talk…

His stints at sea gave him time to sit and think, to listen to the stories of others, and absorb some of life’s harsher lessons. He witnessed horrific scenes while based in the Mediterranean when Britain became embroiled in the Suez Crisis. He visited many European ports and also South America and South Africa, experiencing a variety of cultures and cuisine. Moved out of the comfort zone of his childhood English village, people and places expanded his heart and vision.

When I think of John, I remember his love for the sea and how it shaped his character. A sea he now roams as his ashes float from shore to shore, revisiting the lands he loved, being part of a marine world he admired – free of human form, he can dance with the dolphins, fly with the fish, or ride a whale.

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When I think of John, I remember his keen sense of humour, can hear his laughter and know he would laugh with us and enjoy the story I’m about to tell of our visit to Stony Point last Wednesday.

I was taking pictures of some Shearwaters and Pacific Gulls sunning themselves on the edge of the slipway jetty when a man in his early 40s and his two children, a boy of 8 and girl of 6, followed me towards the birds. Their conversation –

‘What kind of birds are they Dad?’

‘They’re ducks, son.’

‘No they’re not.’

‘Yes, they are – look,’ he points to the pelicans,’ see how small they are to the albatrosses.’

I’ve seen gannets and black swans at Stony Point but never an albatross.

When I shared the father/son conversation with the girls, we laughed – it reminded us of that funny TV ad for Bigpond or maybe Google, some years ago – when the young boy asked his Dad why the Great Wall of China was built and the dad replied, ‘to keep the rabbits out.’

For the record, the next evening on a walk with buddy Jillian, I took a picture of a duck in Mordialloc Creek.

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And this is a pelican –

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Pelicans – symbols of mutual aid and love

The Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) is the largest of the shorebirds that can be found along Victoria’s coastline. It has a wingspan of 2.3-2.5 metres and weighs 4 to 6.8 kilos. Wild pelicans can live up to 25 years. Predominantly white with black along the perimeters of the wings, it has a large pale, pinkish bill. An Australian pelican was recorded with the longest bill of any bird in the world. It is the most southerly breeding of all pelican species and is the only pelican found in Australia.

Between the bones on the lower bill is a stretchy patch of skin called the gular pouch. The gular pouch will stretch when it is filled with water and can hold up to three gallons. Pelicans also have a large nail on the tip of the upper part of the bill. They have short legs and large feet with webbing between all four toes.

Their diet is mainly fish but they are carnivores and will eat turtles, crustaceans and other waterbirds. They can soar to heights of 10,000 feet and can commute 150 kilometres to feeding areas. Highly social, these diurnal birds fly together in groups which can be very large. They breed in large colonies of up to 40,000 individuals.

Strong, slow fliers they often glide on thermals to conserve energy. During flight, they pull their head inward towards their body and rest it on their shoulders. They have been known to remain airborne for 24 hours as they seek food.

Pelicans pair up every breeding season and stay with the one mate for the rest of the season.

Adult pelicans rarely use the few calls they have but can hiss, blow, groan, grunt, or bill-clatter. The young are more vocal than the adults and will loudly beg for food. Australian pelicans primarily communicate with visual cues using their wings, necks, bills, and pouches, especially in courtship displays.

Like all birds, Australian pelicans perceive their environment through visual, auditory, tactile, and chemical stimuli. Opportunistic feeders, they adapt to human activity quite easily and directly approach humans to be fed or will steal food, which is problematic because they get caught on fishing lines and hooks.

The Pelican’s Paparazzi
Mairi Neil

Always gathered at Stony Point
pelicans wait for boats to arrive
yet with beaks and wings so large
it’s fishing skill keeps them alive

perhaps these pelicans are lazy
or maybe they’re super smart
stocking food for a week in that beak
without having to dive and dart…

Stony Point’s fishermen’s table
a magnet for seabirds galore
shearwaters, seagulls – even swans
compete with pelicans for more

discarded fish guts, heads and tails
whatever fishermen don’t want to eat
I love to watch and capture on camera
the birds vying for a treat after treat

I can’t explain my pelican fascination
except they soar skywards with poise
and whether they stand, sit or float
they exude serenity without noise

they don’t screech, squeal, or twitter
but seem content to ‘just be’
if reincarnation is really a thing
then it’s a pelican I choose to be!

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Anne and me with French island ferry in the background 2018

So little has changed at Stony Point thank goodness, although over the years signs have been added like the new banner announcing the naval facility is now managed by http://www.portofhastings.com and the new sign about French island is detailed and attractive.

Love for More Than One Place

When I developed cancer in 2010, I had lived in Australia nearly half a century, yet still felt I didn’t quite belong, still found myself homesick for Scotland, the land of my birth. I loved Australia, especially my home in Mordialloc where I have lived for thirty-five years. I married there and gave birth to my two daughters and brought them up in Mordialloc, but there was a passion missing, a sense of belonging I needed to ignite because if I was going to die should I return to Scotland?

After I finished chemotherapy I decided to create a bucket list because breast cancer and the treatment had me on the brink of death several times due to complications. I had always wanted to visit Australia’s red centre and see Uluru, in Australia’s heart and a sacred place for the Aborigines. I felt if I could get closer to the earth sacred to Aborigines, a connection to their mother, the country, would perhaps rub off on me.

Through research on the Internet, I discovered a tour company taking a group of writers to walk the Larapinta Trail called Desert Writers. Led by Jan Cornell, we’d spend five nights camping in the desert and walk the trail with two indigenous guides.

I didn’t hesitate and booked to fly to Alice Springs in July 2011 – still almost bald and a little fragile from a lumpectomy, haematoma, then radical mastectomy, three months of chemotherapy and a nasty bout of pneumonia thrown in for good measure.

The trip would not only realise a dream but would affirm I could still travel, which is one of my passions. It promised to encourage me to write, the most important passion I have. However, more importantly, I hoped to gain a greater appreciation and deeper connection to my adopted homeland, something I had not felt since being uprooted from Scotland as a child.

The journey fulfilled all my hopes and last year when I returned to Scotland after a twenty- year absence I loved being back, but returning to Mordialloc was coming home.

Mordi Creek bridge.jpg

My place is Mordialloc, where I can walk along the seashore and as far as I can see there is freedom, an infinite sea, and endless sky.

I can stroll by the Creek enjoying the beauty of native and imported flowers and trees, listen to birdsong, laugh at the antics of ducks and seagulls.

I can breathe and feel secure, even at night, because wherever I am near the sea, John is with me. We sprinkled his ashes at Stony Point so he can wander distant lands, many he’d visited as a boy sailor but always his spirit can return when he feels inclined to touch these shores again.

Whenever the girls or I am near the sea we know John is there, just as the Aborigines know their country and walk in the knowledge their ancestors are protecting their place and their stories.

When I die, my ashes will be sprinkled into the sea at Stony Point. My first journey will be to my birth country, the Western Isles of Scotland, but I will always return to these shores as long as the girls are here and so much of my life’s story.

At Stony Point, I feel calm, serene and comfortable. It is one of several places I cherish as well as marvellous Mordi!

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Did you Know About The Link Between Denmark’s Royal Palace and Bendigo?

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Bendigo Town Hall, Hargreaves Street

My second duty stint last weekend for Open House Bendigo was at the Town Hall, Sunday morning. According to a tourist brochure on heritage buildings:

“If it was good enough for Denmark’s royal palace, it was good enough for Bendigo. German artist, Otto Waschatz decorated both, adorning Bendigo’s Town Hall interior with mythical figures and rich gold leaf. Outside, muscular ‘Atlas” sculptures support the clock’s weight. These are fitting fixtures for architect William Vahland’s greatest work (1878-86).”

Seeing these magnificent features a definite drawcard on Sunday, however, I don’t think the artist envisaged the hall being the registration point for cyclists involved in the second Bendigo Cycling Classic – hence the signs around the doorway asking for care and respect for the walls and floors.

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The Bendigo Town Hall stands out and beautifully renovated in 2003, it is well cared for and was one of the many buildings representing gold-rush-era heritage.

Located in the heart of the city and built in the height of the gold rush period like so many of the other wonderful buildings, it is a remarkable legacy of a time when money was plentiful, dreams were big, and prominent townsfolk and those who made the decisions for the municipality ensured the wealth and splendour of Bendigo’s ‘golden age’ did not go unnoticed.

Town Hall: Council Chambers

view from doorway council chamber

Local architect WC Vahland was commissioned to redevelop the Town Hall and came up with a masterpiece that helped secure his place as one of the city’s most revered architects. The Town Hall interiors feature decorative plaster adorned with 22-carat-gold leaf, reflecting the stories the stories of a city built on gold.

In 2003, The Bendigo town Hall returned to the elegance and beauty of its 19th-century heritage after an extensive restoration and renovation program including plasterworks murals and gold leaf worked by skilled artists and artisans.

A snippet from another tourist promotion:

The name Bendigo originated from a world famous bare-knuckled boxer, William ‘Abednigo’ Thompson. A shepherd, on the Ravenswood run near Bendigo, he was handy with his fists and became renowned as a great fighter. He lived in his hut on a creek which flowed through the valley where gold was found. It is said that this shepherd, nicknamed ‘Abednigo’ lent his name to this rich goldfield – and the rest, as they say ‘is history’.

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The Cornish Miner monument outside the Town Hall

The Cornish Miner

Erected in appreciation of the endeavours of all the underground miners of Bendigo and District who created the economy from which grew a beautiful city thus leading to further developments and helping to provide the base for Victoria to become an industrial state.

Cornishmen and their descendants formed the majority of these miners. Erected by the City of Greater Bendigo on behalf of its Citizens and the Cornish Association of Bendigo and District 1996.

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Bendigo’s Coat of Arms, hand-carved cedar, by  T. Erlecki, circa 1880s.

Open House Bendigo, 2018

On Sunday, between 10.00am and 1.00 pm, 179 people took advantage of access and traipsed through the Town Hall, joining 600 from the day before.

Jaws dropped at the old Council Chamber’s polished wood, rich leather, gorgeous wall murals and marble posts, rich gilded ceiling and pelmets.

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However, despite a clear sign and my gentle reminders, I had to ask a couple of people more than once NOT to sit in the Mayor’s Chair or rub their hands over the wood and leather.

And it wasn’t young people who were the culprits but seniors who should have known about the damage human sweat can do to artefacts and that if hundreds of people were allowed “just one photo please of me sitting in the chair” the likelihood of damage is high. I’m sure if the mayoral robes had not been encased in glass, some people would have been tugging at the chain.

The policeman role aside, I loved the stories people shared with me and the many remarks of appreciation of the skilled craftsmanship and pride in the presentation evident in the old and new council chambers and the hall.

Two ladies talked about making their debut in the Town Hall – one in 1956, the other in 1966 when Mr Oliver (who happened to be her boss) was the mayor.

He let her sit in the mayor’s chair! She can remember the fear of the small group of girls waiting in the chamber before descending the staircase to walk the full length of the ‘great hall’ to be presented to the mayor (Mr Oliver). ‘It was terrifying,’ she said, never having been so exposed to officialdom and public scrutiny, it was a relief to dance the Charmaine, their presentation dance.

She explained the event to her grandchildren who listened with polite interest and I was struck with the fact that after more than half a century, her overwhelming memory is of feeling anxious and intimidated.

Another lady was proud to tell me her son-in-law painted all the gold lettering in the hall during the renovations. I wish she had been nearby when a rare negative interaction occurred.

An old man in a faux stetson wanted to know how much gold was in the paint and how much the gilding cost. He was disappointed I didn’t know. I told him to speak with Nathan, the Town Hall representative who was managing the numbers of visitors downstairs.

Cold eyes beneath the hat stared at me for a moment, before cross-questioning who I was and why I was there. I explained about Open House and that as a long-term volunteer from Melbourne I volunteered for this inaugural Bendigo event.

His response thick with sarcasm, ‘How very altruistic of you,’ as he walked away disappointed I couldn’t give him the statistics he wanted.

I was glad Nathan was there because there was so much going on and the visitors were constant. He had shown me around the place before the doors opened and when we looked into the current council chamber he warned that although most people are respectful to watch out for ‘anti-council’ behaviour.

From my position in the hallway, I could see inside the old chamber but also see the new chamber because the wall is all glass. I kept my eye on Mr Stetson – rightly or wrongly I’d earmarked him!

Impressed by its ‘grandeur’, many people asked me why the council had stopped using the old chamber and when I pointed out the obvious they could see the new room was much more suitable:

  • the old council chamber did not have room for the current number of councillors, staff or press or the modern day technological requirements
  • the old council chamber did not have room for a public gallery and ratepayers are allowed into most council meetings
  • the cost of maintaining the old chamber – regularly cleaning it and repairing any wear and tear if it was used would be much more than for the modern chamber

The new council chamber had rows of seats for visitors plus a gallery of photos of previous mayors.

The current mayor of Bendigo is female but in the early days of the city as the dozen pictures lining the walls reveal, the ‘founding fathers’ were male.

I can almost guarantee future depictions of mayors will not be oil paintings or photographs by prized photographers or placed in huge gilt frames. I even wonder if the mayoral robes will be donned – times have changed!

The early mayors were all active in business and community organisations, each leaving a distinctive legacy and exceptional worthwhile achievements that resonate today. A lady confided to me with pride that one of the mayors pictured –  Cr JH Curnow JP, 1901 and mayor 1902-4, 1912-13, 1919-20, 1927-28 – was a relative and she had no idea of his achievements!

It Is Important to Acknowledge Mayoral Milestones

Thomas Jefferson Connelly, a solicitor, was elected mayor in 1887 – the first Bendigo native and the youngest man up to that time to hold office. He was born in Sandhurst and was 29 years old. He was president of the Australian Natives Association and a driving force behind Federation and a close friend of Australia’s second PM Alfred Deakin. Sadly, Connelly contracted typhoid fever as a result of overwork in his private practice and died at only 34 years of age leaving a widow and three children.

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Town Hall entrance

Ambrose Dunstan was one of Bendigo’s oldest Justices of the Peace and on many occasions was the assistant coroner. From 1891-2 he was President of Australian Natives Association. During his term during WW1 house numbering was carried out, 182 building permits issued and he unveiled the Soldier’s Memorial Statue, recently refurbished 2018.

The news that the armistice had been signed by German representatives reached Bendigo about midnight on November 11th 1918. At 2am on November 12th, Mayor Dunstan read a message from the Governor-general on the steps of the Town Hall to a crowd of over 1000. The joyous peal of St Paul’s bells and the continuous tolling of the town clock awakened the people, who came to the city in large numbers. The mayor invited those present to give thanks and proceeding closed with the National Anthem. Peace had been declared.”

We are close to celebrating the centenary of that PEACE and thinking about the huge numbers of war dead and casualties still makes me weep. It is not an exaggeration to think almost every household would have been touched in some way and I can just imagine the joy of this spontaneous gathering in the predawn light.

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Soldiers Memorial Bendigo 2018

David John Andrew another early mayor ‘led a very active public life and there were few movements in which he was not connected. Captain of the Bendigo Fire Brigade in 1898 he held that position until his death. Chairman of the CFA he ‘heartily devoted himself to the promotion of the best interests of firemen and the firefighting service generally.’ Born in Scotland, he was prominent in the Bendigo Caledonian Society, the Victoria Scottish Union and the Masonic Order.  For many years, as the Secretary of the Easter Fair, he was interested in the Bendigo Hospital and Benevolent Home and pursued the matter of sewerage strenuously. He believed when Bendigo was sewered the death rate would be lowered considerably and cited that in 1909 there had been 719 births and 548 deaths. He committed his life to humanitarian causes and during the years of the Great War,  he organised support for Australian soldiers and prisoners of war.

Mayor William Beebe, MBE, continued as a councillor until ten weeks before his death in 1920 and was mourned by many including PM Hughes who sent condolences: “ My deepest sympathy in your sad bereavement. Bendigo has lost a very worthy citizen and Australia one of her most loyal sons.” Beebe took the lead in patriotic movements and social, religious and philanthropic objectives hence being awarded the MBE.

Born in Sandhurst in 1857 he worked with his father as a stonemason, studied architectural drawing at the School of Mines and with his father designed and built several buildings during the 1880s. Later as an architect, Beebe was responsible for the ANA Hall, the City Markets, the Fire Station in View Street, the Royal Bank (now a restaurant) and Lansellstowe and numerous private homes.

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Another young councillor (39 years), Mayor Michael Guidice (1922-24) directed his energy and faith to commercial enterprises for the advancement of Bendigo. Managing Director of Bendigo United Breweries he was associated with the moving picture industry from its pioneering days.

In 1913 he formed the Bendigo Lyric Photoplays and personally supervised the opening and work of the new Lyric theatre that year as well as being governing director of The Shamrock Hotel. He was a moving force in forming the Shakespearean Reading and Literary Society and assisted in the formation of the Bendigo Choral Society.

Mayor Ernest Vains (1924-25) was born in Kerang and started a Stock and Station Agent’s business in Bendigo. “He had a great capacity for work and attempted to attract industries…” Director of the Bendigo Sun and the Farmers and Citizens Trustees P/L, playing a prominent role in the formation of Bendigo Rotary Club in 1925. A keen outdoor sportsman, a member of the Bendigo Jockey Club, secretary of the South Bendigo Bowling Club and office bearer Golden Square Bowling Club. When retiring from office 1926, he noted four deaths ascribed to diphtheria and two from typhoid fever and overall 497 deaths and 689 births.

Mayor Frederick Niemann born in sale 1879 and mayor during the Depression years took a prominent role in retaining the railway workshops in Bendigo. He was one of the founders of the Advance Bendigo and North League and held the position of Chief Magistrate in Bendigo with many years of experience in commerce and industry.

Thank you, Mayor Niemann, for saving the railway workshops! I caught the train to Bendigo for Open House weekend. On the way, there were plenty of rolling green fields with emerald green grass to feed the grazing cattle, horses and sheep. No obvious signs of drought yet.

The Bendigo to Melbourne train line opened in October 1862 but the steam train then a different beast entirely from the comfortable and relatively smooth ride V-Line offers today.

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Another mayor in the 1930s, Mayor George Bennetts built up the well known Bennetts Arcade Stores, one of the most progressive of its kind in Bendigo and later acquired by Woolworths. Bennetts was a keen bowler and member of Bendigo Golf Bowling Club, a Justice of the Peace and responsible for the Easter Saturday Street carnival.

There is a street sculpture by artist Maggie Fooke “After The Procession” dedicated on October 1993 and commissioned by the Bendigo Easter Fair Society. I didn’t remember seeing it on an earlier visit to Bendigo perhaps because it looks so natural! It was ‘refurbished and restored and presented to the people of Bendigo to celebrate the 140th Easter Procession on the 5th April 2010.

W.C Vahland the architect for the Town Hall, came originally from Germany seeking gold but stayed to practice his profession as an architect. How lucky was Bendigo!?

He may have struck out finding gold, but his legacy of fine buildings increased the wealth of Bendigo.

A comment on the refurbishment – a young man was keen to show me travel pictures on his phone. Inside the huge twin towers in Abu Dhabi, there are the exact same light fittings used in the hallway between Bendigo’s two council chambers – and he has seen them elsewhere!

And a final comment from an appreciative visitor to Open House at the Town Hall. She had visited ‘by default’ because like many people in Bendigo she wanted to see what had been achieved so far in the redevelopment of the Beehive Building, which was still a construction site and had been boarded up for several years.

However, her curiosity didn’t extend to waiting in a queue for over an hour and she was thrilled to come straight into the Town Hall, learn history she didn’t know and be amazed at the beautiful finishing touches on the walls and ceiling.

The woman was really enjoying the Open House weekend and agreed wholeheartedly with the current mayor, Cr Margaret O’Rourke,

Bendigo has so much fascinating architecture that will be wonderful to share with visitors and residents alike.”

 

 

Open House Bendigo – Doorways to Fun, Friendship, Heritage, and Community

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I’ve been volunteering for Open House Melbourne for over eight years. In that time, I have had the opportunity to attend workshops and learn interesting facts about architecture, design and heritage. I’ve visited buildings and appreciated aspects and behind the scenes rarely experienced by the general public.

Open House Melbourne is an independent organisation fostering a public appreciation for architecture and public engagement in the future of our cities.

Each year more and more buildings and events are added to this fabulous weekend.  Last year they expanded to Ballarat and this year it was Bendigo. The two regional centres will probably ‘open up’ alternate years.

Both events were a great success with thousands of visitors to the buildings, not only from locals but many people making the trip from Melbourne to take advantage of the warm welcome from the regional communities.

In Melbourne, I’ve been privileged to volunteer at:

Each shift has offered unique experiences. Special ‘thank you’ events for volunteers, allowed behind the scene tours of the Phillips Shirt Factory, Lonsdale Street and Willsmere (the old ‘lunatic’ asylum).

Now open House has expanded, I’ve visited buildings in Ballarat (2017) and this year Bendigo, educating and enjoying myself in the process. The last weekends in July and October now regular dates earmarked on the calendar

Bendigo Beamed in Spring Sunshine

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Bendigo was chosen as a significant regional hub creating an opportunity for locals and visitors alike to celebrate this wonderful city. It was a chance to view different architectural styles and learn about Bendigo’s rich history, its cultural attractions and to consider how future developments will impact the city.

Despite competition from several major events occurring at the same time (The Bendigo Agricultural Show, the second Bendigo Cycling Classic, and Bendigo Sustainable House) the support for the inaugural Open House Bendigo weekend was fantastic (11,000 visits across 23 buildings)!

The weekend provided a range of talks, walks, film screenings and workshops plus the buildings open for inspection and appreciation, all encouraging an exploration of the diversity and design of Bendigo’s built environment and history.

Bendigo was proclaimed a city in 1871, the year the Bendigo Easter Fair began – Australia’s oldest ongoing festival. I was rostered on duty at the Bendigo Tramways Depot, Australia’s oldest continually operating tram depot.

 

All Aboard For A Great Ride

The Bendigo Tramways depot was built in 1901 for the Electric Supply Company of Australia Ltd. At the time of building, the property also included what is today the Bendigo Woollen Mills, which housed the steam engines, generators and boiler until 1972. The depot was completed in 1903 for the operation of electric trams. (The first depot was constructed in 1890 near the railway station.) In addition to the tramway shed, the facility included cooling ponds, a blacksmith’s shop, carpenter’s shed, elevator house, and other support buildings.

The Tramways Depot and Workshop may not have survived had it not been for the Bendigo community’s will to keep the trams running in Bendigo once they were shut down as a public transport option. This led to the introduction of the tourist tram service in 1972. The tourist tram service celebrates 46 years of service in 2018. 

The Bendigo Tramways is known nationally and internationally for its heritage tram restoration capabilities and its rare collection of heritage trams. Trams from all over the country, including Melbourne’s City Circle trams, are all restored to their former glory in the Bendigo Tramways Workshop.

 

There were guided conductor tours on the hour led by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide, Ian, along with a specialised in-depth pre-booked tour led by Luke, the Workshop Manager. However, when more people turned up, Luke kindly accommodated them and ended up with a group of 24 instead of 15!

The guides were extremely proud to point out the work carried out so far for the City of Melbourne refurbishing the famous restaurant trams and the vintage trams used on the free city tourist loop.

 

On duty from 9.30am to 1.00pm, I had the opportunity to chat with Pam in the gift shop/cafe. Pam warned about the dust from the imported plane trees and said a light breeze can blow the dust about and start people coughing. She spoke from experience and said if anyone did start coughing to suggest they go to the cafe and she’d supply a glass of water. Pam discovered the problem with the plane trees after going to the doctor thinking she had asthma or an allergy.

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Many of the others working at the depot are volunteers.  Ian was super knowledgeable, efficient – and passionate about trams like all the volunteers. He loved the people he met volunteering and said, ‘You know, I’ve met people from all corners of the world here. I met someone from Zimbabwe and we discussed their country. I wouldn’t have met him if I wasn’t doing this job.’

Steve, a volunteer driver, in a previous life was a stipendiary magistrate who loved trams! Another Ian was the driver who gave me a lift back to town. The tram was packed and I got to sit up front with him in the driver’s seat.

Ian has been driving the vintage trams for 17 years and when an unusual fault occurred he told me it was only the second time it had happened.

I had no idea the variation in controls until I wandered around the depot peeking inside all the different trams – some still in use, others being refurbished.

Each tram has an interesting history but without the work and passion of a team of volunteers, the tramways could not have achieved many of the major milestones and awards, especially winning gold in the 2016 Australian Tourism Awards or the Hall of Fame in 2014, 2015 and 2016 Victorian Tourism Awards.

No 7 decommissioned in the 1930s, became a sleep-out before being returned for restoration in 1988. In 2000, the body was stripped of any structural additions, cleaned and put on display.

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Tram No 30 was driven by HRH Prince Charles in 1974. This Birney tram was built in 1925 in Philadelphia USA, for South Australia and operated on the Port Adelaide line until 1935. Purchased by Geelong it operated there as Tram No 30 before being transferred to Bendigo and used for spare parts. However, in 1972 it was restored to be one of the Vintage Talking Trams and became the flagship of Bendigo Tramways.

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One of the volunteer conductors told me the story of Charles and Di’s visit. Princess Diana was standing on the balcony of The Shamrock Hotel where they were staying. Prince Charles knew she would be out there to wave and watch him drive past. He was determined she see him driving and was so excited he went through two red lights. Needless to say, they didn’t forward on the traffic ticket!

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Tram No 44 was one of two trams restored especially for the Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust Centenary in 2010. Built in 1914 in Adelaide, South Australia for Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust it was sold to the State Electricity Commission of Victoria in 1951 for Bendigo operations and painted in green and cream livery of the SEC. Ten years later, repainted maroon and cream, it joined the talking tram fleet.

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Tram No 84 has the most magnificent feature interior timber work of all the trams in the fleet. Built in Melbourne in 1917 for the Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust it was later sold to the SECV in 1931 for operation in Bendigo. In 1935 it was configured to be operated by one man. It developed ‘excessive body movement’ issues and was withdrawn from service in 1965 and because of internal disagreements between supervisors didn’t return to use until 1975 when made operational by the Bendigo Trust to run on special outings. In 2010 it was refurbished to its original California configuration for the centenary celebrations of the Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust.

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Tram No 21, an M class tram was built in Adelaide in 1917 for the Hawthorn Tramways Trust. It was sold to the SECV in 1935 to operate in Bendigo. Retaining its one-man configuration it was repainted in the SEC livery of green and cream and ran until the closure of Bendigo’s public transport system in 1972. In 1992, it was repainted in the grey, white and blue livery of Hawthorn Tramways Trust to celebrate a significant event in the history of the City of Footscray. It operated as a Vintage Talking Tram until 2000 when it was removed to be restored to its 1930s condition. Thanks to the Bendigo Tramways Work for the Dole program it returned to service in 2005.

close up front of tram no 21

Tram No 29 was the focal point to save the trams from being dispersed and sold off when the Bendigo Tramways closed in 1972. State cabinet supported The Bendigo Trust’s proposal to run a tourism tram service using the SECV’s trams and tracks on trial until Easter 1974. However, the SEC had promised Tram No 29 to a museum in Adelaide without consultation or knowledge of the Bendigo Trust.

Community anger manifested itself in a mini-uprising and blockade to stop the tram being taken out of the depot with local businesses sending their vans and cars after the Mayor used the media to rally the citizens. The furore resulted in a ministerial committee and negotiations culminating in the entire fleet being sold to The Bendigo Trust for a ‘mere $1’ in 1977.

Relations between an aggrieved South Australian museum and the citizenry of Bendigo were later assuaged by the discovery of a sister tram, also a Birney, being used as a garden shed. Representatives of the Tramways trust negotiated the donation of this tram when the owners were promised a replica of a nineteenth century cast iron street lamp created by a skilful committee member.

The tram was restored with a grant from the State Government and presented to the Australian Electric Tramway Museum, Adelaide in 1976. Proving ‘all’s well that end’s well.’

It is mindboggling to see the before and after examples in the workshop – the state of donated or discovered trams, the craftsmanship and skill applied, and the finished product of beautiful polished wood and painted tram interiors.

Of course, the depot has a special supervisor overseeing the work –

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The rescue cat, Birney joined the team in 2014. Originally, he was to catch mice but the sign on his office promotes him to Tramways Superintendent and of course, the Gift Shop has a range of souvenirs. I was lucky to see him at close quarters but with the increased visitors he wisely withdrew and found some spot in the sun far away from the madding crowds.

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A Bit Of History Puts Trams In Context

With the advent of electric trams and extended tracks ‘housewives’ moved away from their local shops in the suburbs and bought goods in the heart of the city at a time when shops didn’t close until 11 pm on a Friday night, along with many hotels. ‘As a result, there were many wavering legs on Friday evenings trying to negotiate the flagstones of Pall Mall in a desperate attempt to catch the drunk express home.’

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I had to get at least one picture of myself on a tram and chose No 8 – it was a number 8 to Toorak that gave me the inspiration to write A Ticket to Vaudeville, the first short story I received payment for when it was published in The Weekly Times in the 80s – ironically that newspaper’s head office is in Bendigo.

Bendigo’s first people, the Dja Dja Wurrung

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The Dja Dja Wurrung Tram takes passengers on a journey of discovery into the unique and fascinating traditions of Bendigo’s first people. The Dja Dja Wurrung, one of the five communities of the Kulin people, a federation of five distinct but strongly related communities, which also includes the Boonerwrung of Mordialloc and other southern bayside places.

All Kulin had as their defining social moiety either Bundjil, the eagle, or Waa, the crow. Long before they had contact with the European world, they had complex trading networks sharing stone axe heads and highly crafted possum-skin cloaks and other examples of useful craftsmanship and art.

bunjil the creator

Archaeological evidence shows their connection to the land extending beyond 40,000 years. It is estimated that between 20,000 and 60,000 people, speaking over 30 languages lived throughout Victoria when Europeans arrived in 1835.

Rapid colonisation, the stealing of Aboriginal land, and the destruction of families by murder and disease forced Aborigines onto missions resulting in a loss of language, traditions and more lives – a cruel devastating and violent period of history.

Today the 25,000 plus Aboriginal people who live in Victoria are concerned about self-determination, maintaining their culture and restoring their lands.

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The tram is a moving lesson and illustration of Dja Dja Wurrung culture and painted on the roof sides there is a host of information proudly showing their customs and practices are alive and respected – keeping them connected to the past, the present and the future. Their cultural heritage recognised and protected as a celebration of identity and community.

Even the upholstery tells a story.

Recognition and Settlement Agreement

In 2013, the Dja Dja Wurrung people entered into an agreement with the Victorian Government recognising them as the traditional owner group for this country. The agreement recognises Dja Dja Wurrung people as the traditional owners of Central Victoria and binds the state of Victoria and the Dja Dja Wurrung people to a meaningful partnership founded on mutual respect. The list of recognised Apical Ancestors is also on the tram.

HEALING COUNTRY

The Dja Dja Wurrung have lived on traditional lands and cared for country over many thousands of years. Country is more than just landscape, it is more than what is visible to the eye – it is a living entity, which holds the stories of creation and histories that cannot be erased. The Dja Dja Wurrung have nine aspirations for their country, including…

Rivers & Waterways

Our rivers and waterways are healthy and meet the needs of our people and land.

Land

Our upside-down country is healthy again (healed from the effects of mining).

Djaara (People)

Every Dja Dja Wurrung person is happy, healthy and secure in their identity, livelihood and lifestyle.

Djandak (a traditional way of business)

We have a strong and diverse economic base to provide for our health and well-being and strengthen our living culture.

Self Determination

As our country’s first people, Djaara have an established place in society and are empowered to manage our own affairs

Joint Management

All crown land on Dja Dja Wurrung country is Aboriginal title and we are the sole managers. 

close up of decorated aboriginal tram

Along with illustrations and stories of the creators, there were details of the following native animals:

GNANA-NGANITY (bat) -There are 77 bat species in Australia. Bats are nocturnal and are the only mammals capable of sustained flight. They use echolocation to navigate during the night and to find food. They are natural pest controllers as 70% of them live on a diet of insects. A baby bat is called a pup.

MUMUMBARRA (bee) – There are over 1600 species of bees that are native to Australia. Native bees are smaller than European bees and many of them don’t sting. They can be black, yellow, red, metallic green and also black with blue polka dots, and can range from fat and furry to sleek and shiny.

BALAM BALAM (butterfly) – Australia is home to more than 400 species of butterfly. A butterfly does not eat but receives nutrients from drinking nectar and pollen from flowers and plants.

MUR-MURRA (dragonfly) – the dragonfly is an aquatic insect and spends most of its six-month life near the water. There are 320 known species of dragonfly native to Australia.

GALIYT (witchetty grub) – Witchetty Grubs are mainly found in central Australia. The grub is the larvae of the Cossid Moth. Witchetty Grubs can grow up to 12 centimetres long and are eaten as part of Aboriginal diet.

DUM (frog) – The frog is the only native amphibian to Australia and tends to live near wetlands as their skin needs moisture. Depending on the species some have a special slime coating and others can burrow into the ground to keep moist.

GUWAK (kookaburra) – the kookaburra is the largest member of the Kingfisher family of birds. They eat small mammals, lizards, snakes and insects. The laugh of the kookaburra is actually a call to mark their territory.

BARRANGAL (pelican) – The pelican is found throughout Australia. They can fly 3 kilometres above the earth. Their bills can hold up to 13 litres of water and they can eat up to 9 kilograms of food each day.

WIRRAP (cod) – fish were an important part of the Dja Dja Wurrung diet and were caught in different types of traps made from rocks or nets. The Loddon and Campaspe Rivers are where Dja Dja Wurrung ancestors lived and many types of fish were found in these waterways.

BARAMUL (emu) – Baramul is fast and can run up to 50 kilometres per hour. The female lays eggs and the male emu sits on the nest to hatch the young. Mu equality! The noise that the emu makes in its throat can be heard 2 kilometres away.

YULAWIL (echidna) – The echidna is one of two monotremes, which are egg-laying mammals. The other is the platypus. Both animals feed their babies on milk. A young echidna is called a muggle. Echidnas live for around 45 years in the wild.

DUAN (phascogale) – A phascogale is a relative of the quoll and Tasmanian devil. Their diet consists of insects, spiders and centipedes. They will also eat nectar from the ironbark flowers. The male phascogale dies at around one year of age, just after breeding season. The phascogale is a shy animal and has a very bushy tail.

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I retired to magnolia-on-view, the Airbnb I was sharing with friend Susan whom I met volunteering for Open House Ballarat and reflected on an amazing morning and all the new cultural and historical information absorbed.

The atmosphere in my little corner of Bendigo friendly, relaxed, and fun. I was surrounded by positivity and people giving back to their community. Ian and I both agreed, volunteering for something you love gives you energy.

I met up with Jack who lives in the redeveloped Willsmere and who had been our tour guide for the place. He remembered me. A nice compliment considering as a grey-haired senior I’m often considered to be in the realms of the invisible and irrelevant now…

I laughed with a couple of locals – a retired gentleman who lived in the same street as the Depot but who had never visited. It took Open House Bendigo to change his ‘will do one day’ into ‘will do today’ and he’d brought along a son and grandson who now live in Melbourne!

I met Sandra, a writer and editor who has just moved to Bendigo. She volunteers and writes biographies for people in palliative care.

The weekend was exceeding expectations and making me forget the ache in my ribs from an unfortunate car accident a few days before.

I checked the roster and prepared to open another door!

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Blossoming Bentleigh A Delight

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Last week, I sat in a cafe in Bentleigh near the railway station, pen in hand scribbling away while enjoying coffee and cake.

I’d finished class but had some time to kill before joining an Intergenerational Project within the City of Kingston.

I often use time like this to either wind down by reflecting and writing or observe and write – as I tell my students to do – never miss an opportunity to gather material for stories and poems!

Proust quote

It had been a memorable day. The first real hint of spring warmth in the air and I informed my boss of my intention to retire from Godfrey Street at the end of the year. I’ve decided to apply for the aged pension and ‘retire’ from most paid work.

Instead of teaching and travelling between neighbourhood houses, I will only teach at Chelsea – and not until second term 2019 – giving myself a transitioning period to work out how to stay connected with community, teaching, writers and the craft of storytelling I love.

Sitting and sipping coffee brought relaxation and a sense of relief – I’d made a decision I’d been avoiding although discussed aloud with family and close friends.

The times and life definitely a’changing!

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It has been a long winter – everybody I meet says so and I have to agree, so how wonderful to feel the warmth of the sun – it energised me to be more positive.

Sunshine makes you feel better and brightens the day, especially if you work indoors like me – and so much of writing is expressing inner thoughts, delving into dreams, fears and phobias along with fantasies, imaginings and ideas… classrooms become incubators and separated from ‘outside’.

A breath of fresh air does wonders in more ways than one and I always appreciate walking or using public transport to stay grounded in reality. Having breathing space before and after work and on a sunny day, the walk a senses overload.

Albert Street to Mordialloc Station at this time of year reveals blossoming trees and flowers blooming in various gardens, including my own.

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The magpie trill competes with noisy minors, and the wattlebirds have returned to caw loudly while clawing back their territory as the grevillea and bottlebrush bud. The air is perfumed with apple and plum trees along with camellias and the perennial geraniums.

The garden at the community house in Bentleigh tended by volunteers and is delightful in spring.

The walk from Bentleigh Station up Centre Road to Godfrey street perfumed with a variety of eateries and a more pleasant stroll after State Government and Glen Eira Council’s efforts to beautify the shopping strip ‘back to normal’ after the upheaval of the level crossing removal.

If I hadn’t taken pictures and documented that massive infrastructure project memories would fade as to how it looked.

Recording Memories Important

That’s what I love about my Life Stories & Legacies class – in fact, all my classes where people write their recollections. So many different perspectives and experiences.

Trish, a student in my Mordialloc class several years ago recalled a memory about Bentleigh when I gave an exercise about a milestone most of us are eager to celebrate:

‘What do you remember from childhood when you reached double figures?’

On my birthday, the day was sunny – good things happen on sunny days, especially if a Sunday. We lived in Richmond and I was told we were moving to the country. I felt happy and excited because there would be cows and horses. We climbed in the family Buick and drove off to Bentleigh – that was ‘the country’ in the 1940s. It seemed a long drive with outer suburbs just developing and no traffic worries. The house was unfinished and surrounding paddocks our playground. Horses from Mentone intruded into the paddocks sometimes and I was scared of being trampled.

The lady at end of the road had a cow and chickens and I remember the taste of frothy warm milk straight from her cow. Francesco street was where we lived and Mrs White our only next-door neighbour. There were vegetables growing nearby and goods were delivered by horse and cart so plenty of manure available for growing. Whenever I smell the pungent aroma of horse manure, I remember moving to live in Bentleigh when I was ten years old.

There will always be critics of development and change (there are some I don’t like) however, Premier Daniel Andrews’ legacy of upgrading, building and planning much-needed infrastructure for our public transport system is amazing and long overdue. Hats off to the engineers and workers who carried out the vision.

A witness to the important change in Bentleigh:

  • The bottom two tiers of the MCG could have been filled with the earth excavated from under the McKinnon, Bentleigh and Ormond level crossings once intensive digging began for rail under road trench.
  • The Level Crossing Removal Authority estimated 150 tipper trucks left the excavation sites each hour as 500,000 tonnes of earth was moved to a Heatherton tip in the initial ten days.
  • Construction crews of 1000 plus workers toiled around the clock to minimise inconvenience and get the Frankston services running. The job completed in 37 days instead of the scheduled 94!

Short-term pain for long-term gain.

A great new station.

It may come at a political cost because people dislike disruption to their routines and with an election looming whinging from naysayers will be funded and organised by political opponents, but as someone who has never owned a car and with a great belief in living sustainably, I’m glad the state government has made investment in efficient public transport a priority.

Climate change already wreaks havoc, Melbourne’s roads are clogged, reliable public transport the most sensible and sustainable way to move people.

By removing level crossings, adding new lines, linking suburbs, creating a reliable coordinated transport mix – all of these will help a cultural change.

And at Bentleigh as in other level crossings, it will save lives as an extract from one of the Mordialloc Writers’ anthologies, Off The Rails illustrates.

Jeff Lasbury operated the kiosk on Bentleigh station for several years :

Monday, March 23rd 1998 was like any other day until 8.00 am when I heard the train horn blast, a woman scream, and a sickening thud accompanied by the hissing sound of the air brakes being applied by the train driver.

I opened the kiosk door and poked my head out to look down the ramp to the level crossing praying no one had been hurt. I could see nothing untoward and breathed a sigh of relief. I stepped out of the kiosk but decided to turn back because the train had pulled into the station as usual, when I caught sight of a body lying on the tracks almost directly in front of me.

I looked again… everything appeared unreal, an eerie silence descended. It seemed a long time before someone found something to cover the body of the young woman. I assumed the body female because of the scream I had heard but minutes later a hysterical woman came to the kiosk window and between sobs explained it was her
screaming. She had witnessed a young man hit by the train.

Overwhelmed with sadness, I felt numb, and struggled with disbelief…

The young man had been a customer and recently celebrated his 18th birthday. That morning, his mother dropped him off near the station because he was running a bit late. The boom gates came down and the lights were flashing, however, like many pedestrians, he crossed the first line because no train was on that line, but there were
two more tracks to cross. Worried about missing his train, which neared the station, he crossed the barrier, looking in the direction of his approaching train ignoring the other
way. He walked into the path of the city-bound train, which he probably didn’t hear coming because of the Walkman plugged into his ears.

Floral tributes appeared at the level crossing the next day, and a day later, the wire fence in front of the kiosk blossomed with more. Most were single flowers, some not particularly beautiful but left by people who knew and loved the young man, all touching tributes to a tragic lost life…

Some years later, a young woman walked past the kiosk to the ticket machine further up the platform. She took a little time to get her ticket and then came back past. She lost her life in exactly the same way as the young man.

Almost every level crossing will have a similar tale to tell or examples of near misses – I won’t miss the Centre Road level crossing or its clanging lights and boom gates.

A tragedy is far away from my thoughts walking Centre Road on a sunny day, the chaos of mounds of dirt, grunting and growling heavy machinery, buses replacing trains, the traffic and pedestrian diversions are all in the past too.

The new station functions well – toilets and waiting room at street level, a lift and ramp plus stairs – facilities appreciated by everyone, not just rail users.

Murals and music and a delightful community meeting place also appreciated.

I loved the piano that stayed for some time and the many people who took advantage of the freedom to tinkle the ivories… especially the ones who had talent – they attracted smiling listeners, including me.

New cafes and shops have opened and old ones refurbished. Outside tables always abuzz with the old and young plus plenty of canine companions.

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The disconnect of Centre Road caused by the level crossing now gone and people (including myself) visit shops and cafes ignored before.

What will 2019 bring?

I freely admit there will be a period of adjustment for me because I’ll miss the twice-weekly trips to Bentleigh and the community house.

I’m always surprised how easily workplaces you like become a second home but I’m looking forward to spending more time focusing on my own projects ‘at home’ and Bentleigh is only a train trip away!

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The Esplanade Vaults – An Historical Treasure Rarely Opened

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On Sunday, I took part in Open House Melbourne again – another year of memorable experiences. The weekend the showcase event of an organisation committed to ensuring cities remain sustainable and livable, that people care about architecture, design, historical significance, and community values and stay engaged with their environment.

Each time I learn a little more about the history of this wonderful city as well as making the acquaintance of many delightful people. In the past, volunteers identified by a brightly coloured scarf and badge but this year we went for a ‘faux tradie'(?) look – a one size fits all fluoro pink vest!

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The day always wonderful but the weather not always so…

July-August still winter and this year mercurial Melbourne let us know it.

Sunday, a particularly bone-chilling cold day with a consistent arctic wind from Hobson’s Bay visiting as intermittent squalls in the afternoon to remind us what season it is!

I was a building volunteer at The Esplanade Vaults in beachside St Kilda and although I’ve walked past this historical treasure many times (especially on Sunday when I got hopelessly lost and disoriented because I got off the tram one stop too early!) I never knew the vaults existed, or their significance before I was rostered on duty.

Apologies for my ignorance to all those who lived in, or frequented the popular tourist destination of St Kilda, and perhaps loved the shops ‘among the arches.’

They existed for a good part of a century before they were bricked up in the 70s because road widening narrowed the footpath and made access a hazard.

Almost 900 people visited ‘the vaults’ over Open House weekend, with almost half of them on Sunday – many blown in and appreciative of the dryness inside, if not the lack of heating and other creature comforts.

What remains is but a hollow shadow of the popular shops many remember but interesting to see inside because of their history.

The vaults date back to 1891 when public transport on the Upper Esplanade, St Kilda was upgraded to a new cable tramway replacing the Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Company’s horse-drawn omnibus.

The roadway widened to accommodate tram tracks and included in the design was the ‘provision for ten shops with arched ceilings, the walls raised to hold the road above.’

The shops had verandahs and faced the St Kilda Baths on the Lower Esplanade. The St Kilda City Baths still there and I can recommend their friendly staff and coffee and cake. The older photo below of the Baths circa 1933.

 

The shops among the arches sold a range of merchandise suited to the location including ice cream, nuts, confectionery, haberdashery, and fish and chips. The walls are hollow and thick and it’s amazing how the noise is deadened. Nowadays trams and other traffic are constant above the shops and the road outside but are muffled to be almost unheard in the vaults.

The doors have wooden lintels and you can see the thickness of the walls. It is obvious what parts of the vaults are the original 1890s bricks and the more modern bricks used to seal them.

One of the visitors to the site on Sunday who looked about my age, perhaps older, told me a story about his childhood:

‘You know one of those shops just around the corner used to be a fish and chip shop. I’d ride my bike down here and buy some fish and chips, then leaving my bike leaning against the shop wall I’d cross the road and spend several hours on the beach. Didn’t matter when I came back my bike was still there.’

His nostalgic story ended on a wistful note, ‘No need for locks in those days…’

The City of Port Phillip Values Its Heritage

Only some of the original shops can be accessed and 2016 was the last time the Council opened them to the public. Sandra, a representative from Port Phillip Council’s Heritage Centre had set up a table to promote their local history and heritage program. It was an added bonus to have people knowledgeable about the city on hand.

heritage colunteers

My daughter lives in East St Kilda and I’m looking forward to warmer weather to follow detailed guides to five interesting walks:

  • Immigrants Trail (4 kilometres – 70-90 minutes)
  • Foreshore Trail ( 11 kilometres – 3 hours)
  • To Market To Market (1 kilometre – 30 minutes)
  • Around The Hill ((1 kilometre – 30 minutes)
  • Solar System Trail (5.9 kilometres – 90 minutes)

This last walk intriguing and the result of a 2008 project with the Astronomical Society of Victoria, Lonely Planet Foundation, City of Port Phillip, Monash University, artist Cameron Robbins and Scienceworks!

walking guides

St Kilda’s Built Heritage

The shop verandahs were removed in the 1950s but it wasn’t until the 1970s they were bricked up because of the widening of Jacka Boulevard.

Inside the vaults, on Sunday, there was a slideshow of historical pictures on a loop. Various views of  St Kilda lit up one wall and old photos were fixed on the walls in another room.  Sandra lamented there were no pictures of the shop interiors, or indeed close-ups of the shop fronts when they were thriving.

I’m sure there are snapshots in some family albums and perhaps one day they’ll be donated to a library or museum. Until then, people visiting just have to use their imagination – and everyone agreed the shop owners must have been expert at using space because the vaults are small. No wonder they needed the verandahs and a wide footpath!

the show goes on book st kilda

There was a volume of a history of St Kilda for sale plus some postcards and I bought these to share with my writing class, especially those who are writing life stories and memoir. Those who write historical fiction will find them a good resource too.

The detail of the fashions on postcards, what people are doing, the landscape or seascape, expressions on faces – all fodder for a writer to mine.

When I went to class on Monday, I showed the postcards to student Heather (90 this year) and lent her the book because I remembered a story she wrote about trips to St Kilda and having pony rides on the beach. The period the book covers, 1930 – 1983. 

Heather was thrilled, emailing me Monday night:

Am so enjoying the book. Found the name of our swimming coach, Alex Sauter who ignored me and spent all the lesson on my brother. What a wallow in old memories!

love and thanks Heather

Nothing wrong with wallowing in memories and the indigenous people of St Kilda have stories and legends too which we often forget when discussing the history of places. Stories and buildings from European settlement are only a small part of Australia’s history.

‘St Kilda’s’ Story Thousands Of Years Old…

Open House recognises this by stating:

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF COUNTRY

Our programming exists on what always was and always will be the land of the people of the Kulin nation. We pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging, as well as to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the wider Melbourne community and beyond. Indigenous sovereignty has never been ceded in Australia and we try to be mindful of this in everything we do, given our focus on the modern built environment.

The vaults are what remains of the engineering structure of the 1890s and came about as part of the embankment works and built into the supporting wall for the cable tramway.

However, local historian and conservationist Meyer Eidelson who wrote the guide to some of the walks I’ve mentioned was interviewed about the vaults in 2016. 

In 1841, Derimut a leader of the Yalukit Willam who owned the land European settlers claimed as their own was bitterly disappointed by this theft. He cursed the settlement saying one day blood would rain from the sky and all would be swept away.

The shoreline of beach sands and the tea-tree grove is the traditional land of the Yalukit Willam clan of the Boon Wurrung. Legend tells of a grinding site for axes on the foreshore and also that the creator Bunjil who protects the Kulin Nation and travels as an eagle, placed rocks to stop floods and protect the indigenous settlement. Meyer believes the original foundation of the Upper Esplanade could be part of the network of those sacred rocks.

There is also more recent mythology about hauntings, victims, vampires and numerous intriguing ghost stories.

All believable when inside the vaults.

Light from the tiny vents creates shadows that dance across the floor and up the walls. The effects of the changing light from outside, the glow of artificial light inside, and the vibration from above and the steam of cars alongside plus the wind whistling through the arches interesting enough during the day but would be a dramatically different mood and atmosphere in the evening. 

On Sunday, as the foreshore and streets filled with families and others enjoying Open House, I recalled how St Kilda’s history is chequered with various murder stories, not to mention periods where almost every story was negative – either about drugs or prostitution.

The year I volunteered and was on duty at nearby Edgewater Towers, many of the stories centred around its suitability to feature in fledgeling Australian TV crime dramas because of the notoriety of some St Kilda residents!

I guess it would not be too difficult to imagine the worst if you were alone in one of the dank vaults. (Although they are surprisingly clean and free from the ‘back-alley/abandoned building’ aromas of rodents, rubbish and rotten food.)

Probably, because they have been sealed. Also with no plumbing connected and extremely thick brick walls, any living creature looking for residence would be birds through the top air vents – and yet there was no evidence inside of them.

However, there was a time when people did squat in the vaults and contrary to the general adverse image of people living rough, whoever claimed these catacombs as home left evidence of trying to decorate and soften the harsh reality of cold, rough bricks and concrete.

On Sunday, I encouraged the children who accompanied their parents, to look for the hidden (and some not so hidden!) objects pushed or stuck into cavities in the walls:

marbles, pieces of crockery, plectrums, mirror tiles, old rusty tin, pencil, CDs… a heart image…

A great place to have a writing workshop – perhaps at night with candles flickering…

  • Who put the objects there and why?
  • Were they found objects or had more significance?
  • How long were the people there?
  • Where did they go?

When I finished my shift for the day I was faced with the reality of watching a man settle himself on a bench for the night next to the vaults, his bright orange checked blanket belying the misery of his homelessness. The view of the foreshore and bay more a curse than a joy as a promised storm rolled in on the bruised clouds and I couldn’t imagine how cold his night was going to be.

I was reminded of two other issues in the public arena during the afternoon:

yulukit willum sign about plastic bags

Outside the baths, a timely reminder to ‘ditch plastic bags’ while sharing information about how traditional owners used plants.

Also, on duty at the vaults was Armah, a security guard originally from Ghana. We had a wonderful discussion about the fact Africa is a continent, not a country and how he has lived in Melbourne 21 years and never been in a gang!

I showed Armah a funny clip of the Ghanaian parliament which is doing the rounds of Facebook and he couldn’t wait to get home to tell his family and share it.

Armah has been back to Ghana a couple of times to visit family but like most migrants happy here, he considers that Australia is home.

I wish Dutton, Turnbull, Bolt, Guy et al – the pathetic politicians who dog whistle and use racist slurs to get votes could have chatted with Armah and hear the damage such targeted remarks do to communities.

Cold and tired, I caught up with my daughters for a cup of tea and a chat, sharing the memories triggered by my few hours in St Kilda.

  • I learnt to ice skate at the famous St Moritz rink along with thousands of other Melburnians in my age bracket.
  • I attended dances and functions at the St Kilda Town Hall.
  • Mordialloc Writers read at one of the first St Kilda Writers’ Festivals
  • I’ve visited numerous friends who live in different parts of the suburb
  • I still recall with fear my first visit to Luna Park and the terror of the scenic railway ride!

As I replied to Heather – there’s nothing wrong with wallowing in memories!

There is another post doing the rounds of Facebook –

Dalai Lama quote

The someplace may even be close to home. I wonder what building I’ll be allocated next year…

Who will I meet? What will I learn? What will I remember?

How many degrees of separation will there be… and will the weather be kinder!?

winter copy.jpeg

 

 

 

 

 

Seeking Inner Peace in Outer Mongolia

cairns 2017.jpeg

I freely admit to not being in harmony with my spirit for a long time.

I find Maya Angelou inspiring but whether experiencing delayed and complicated grief or just burn-out, a growing melancholy is difficult to shake off and so I am an expert in masking how I feel. Last year, the pretence life was okay became harder to mask.

I felt broken; fatigued and shattered.

How to fix broken me a difficult conundrum, but not new.

All my life I’ve been accused of over-thinking, being too sensitive, too serious, caring too much. Even primary school teachers wrote “highly strung” in reports when personality assessments sat beside grades.

Weary, disillusioned and disappointed in myself I wondered is it just coming to terms with ageing, or is existing rather than living going to be the norm?

Were the fast approaching ‘twilight years’ affecting me as they did my father who often recited the cynic’s song:

Twas always thus since childhood’s hour, I’ve seen my fondest hopes decay, I never loved a bird nor flower, than the darned thing died or flew away!”

The Physical and Metaphysical

There were physical aspects to how broken I felt.

I visited my oncologist because I wanted to come off Tamoxifen. Her reaction to my complaints about joint pain, rashes, and palpitations, “it’s not just cancer, you’ve never got over losing John…” and while writing a script for anti-depressants,  “I’ll give you these but I know you probably won’t take them…”

She was right about the pills – I didn’t fill the prescription, particularly after researching the possible side effects, mirroring some of the symptoms, which motivated me to make the appointment!

Symptoms I believed from Tamoxifen, the drug keeping my breast cancer under control.

She was also right about my grief for husband John, who I loved passionately and miss every day, but conflating that with the visceral effects of Tamoxifen didn’t help my anxiety.

When I left the specialist’s rooms that day, instead of catching the bus, I walked for an hour, my mind in overdrive and future uncertain.

Decisions to make.

To ignore the prescription for anti-depressants and also come off Tamoxifen. (And when the most worrying physical symptoms disappeared, I was vindicated!)

But what to do about the cloud of depression shadowing me most of my life and now threatening thunderstorm proportions?

Throwing myself into work whether paid or volunteer often an effective distraction. I’ve always been a great believer in focusing and helping others as a way of minimising personal problems.

It sometimes works, but deep down distraction is the right word. Also, it’s a solution that’s often temporary.

Peter Sarstedt in his hit song of the ’60s sang:

But where do you go to my lovely
When you’re alone in your bed
Tell me the thoughts that surround you
I want to look inside your head

No one would want to look inside my head – not even me! Where is the off button?!

The 24hour news cycle and social media with its emphasis on tragedies take a toll on heart and soul too. There are always external factors as well as internal factors feeding melancholia and as a person interested in politics and social justice I know the constant barrage has made it worse.

Going Travelling instead of Going to Pieces

Active solution?

By planning a holiday to places on my bucket list, I hoped travelling and a rest from the everyday would give time to think and heal.

I sent an email to Flower Travel, Trans Siberian journey specialists, plus emails to friends and relatives overseas in the UK, a place not visited in 20 years. I decided to travel where I’d never been and tour Orkney and Shetland.

“The discipline of writing something down is the first step toward making it happen.”

Lee Iacocca

I plundered superannuation and took a term off from teaching…

As a solo traveller, there would be plenty of time for soul-searching, especially visiting Mongolia and Siberia, places as different from my lifestyle as the proverbial ‘chalk and cheese’!

Day Two In Mongolia

I’m scheduled to stay in a traditional ger at Buuviet Ger Camp, Terelj National Park, 65 kilometres northeast of Ulaanbaatar.

The ideal opportunity, at the beginning of my travels, to start that soul searching and a walk at dusk provides time to be quiet and still.

dusk in ger camp - poem.jpg
Dusk in the Ger Camp

“The National Park Gorkhi-Terelj includes the southern Khentil mountain range. Terelj is one of the protected areas most frequently visited. It offers naturally beautiful scenery, interesting rock formations and is covered by forests, wetlands and alpine tundra…”

entrance to campsign to camp

The Buuviet Ger Camp is open all year round and the information listed facilities to include:  220 V electricity, deep well artesian water, 70 gers with guest beds for overnight stay, 16-bed winter houses, ger restaurant with seating for 60 and information ger with Mongolian national games, modern bar in a ger, souvenir shop, fully equipped restrooms (summer only) and an outside BBQ and bar – not the isolated wilderness some may think!

However, I’m not the first and won’t be the last traveller to discover a discrepancy in what is advertised and reality, but I didn’t mind. In fact, the experience probably more authentic because of it. I wasn’t looking for “Glamping” as one travel site described: 

Go glamping

Sleeping in a rough-and-ready Mongolian ger is a quintessential grassland experience, but a growing number of tour operators are establishing sustainable, nomad-run ger camps that target the posh adventurer with innovative luxuries. Nomadic Journeys operates ger camps at pristine wilderness sites that feature heated eco-showers, hand-painted beds with thick yak’s wool blankets, and even a sauna ger. For the truly adventurous, they’ll open up an airstrip and fly people into the great Mongolian void – 365 degrees of pristine emptiness, and it’s all yours.

The spacious and comfortable ger was cosy and I eventually settled to sleep… although that was a long time coming…

Staring at the shadows from the starlight shining through the roof, I relived the minutiae of the day, tortured myself with past imperfect scenarios, tried to imagine perfect scenarios…

… the wee hours never easy for what my mother called ‘an overactive brain‘. Nighttime rarely a relief from the busyness of the day.

The silence in the ger “deafening’! There are none of the sounds I’m used to – machinery, cars, trains, footsteps on pavements, crickets, pigeons cooing, sirens, dogs barking….

At times the wind whistles through the roof but I could be the only person on earth although the faint buzz of security cameras and an outside light just discernible. Once I heard distant barking – dogs warning of wolves?

But there was no insect noises or hum of an electricity generator. The ger cocoon the perfect place for ‘endless musings and ramblings, recriminations and replayed conversations.’

The writing ‘mojo’ I hoped to rekindle struggled to appear, and energy absent, but regrets, remorse, resentment, recriminations, fears, fantasies, grief and even giggles took their turn before I gradually dropped off to sleep!

When we arrived at the camp, snow still lay on the ground. The weather of the last few days just beginning to allow for maintenance and preparation for the spring and summer tourist season.

Being the only guest, I understood why the electricity (stored in batteries) was not switched on, and the ‘fully equipped restrooms” still shrouded and protected from winter.

It was pleasing to see signs explaining efforts to marry environmental awareness with tourism.

A love of travel motivates me, but I readily admit it’s a privilege and carry first world guilt about my environmental footprint.

Cultivating an attitude of neutrality, I consider most people to have good intentions, are not out to be bad or destructive.  The majority are kind and helpful and so I do my best to be trusting, suppress suspicion and hesitation, and extend friendship.

There are myriad cultural and ethnic stereotypes promoted in movies, comedy routines, novels, and plays. Lazy writers thrive on stereotypes and cliches and the success of soap operas and pulp fiction show there is a market. But I hope to absorb and capture the vibrant and fascinating Mongolia that has stunned me, albeit with only two days of experience.

I prefer to take people as I find them and form opinions based on personal experience and observation.

A large sign explained Buuviet Camp’s mission to be an “eco-camp”:

Idopt a tree

Buuveit camp of Tsolmon Travel LLC was nominated and certified as the first “Eco Camp” today we are working to bring you close to nature by developing beautiful garden at our camp.

Goal:

  • save and preserve the endangered species of plants, trees and shrubbery
  • increase the number by replanting
  • provide botanical education

Our garden is dedicated to the collection, cultivation and display of wide range of plants from Gorkhi Terelj National park and Khan Khentii Protected Area.

Thousand Trees Every YEAR
Please join our effort to give back to the nature by planting trees and flowers any help would be appreciated
For more info please ask the camp manager.

I saw the area mapped out for a vegetable and fruit garden, still empty of growth because of winter.  However, Jemina, my host excited at seeing a tiny shoot of green and bent down to examine it.  New growth means his horses and cattle will have more feed. 

Traditionally, Mongolian nomads raise five species of livestock known as the five muzzles or snouts: horses, cows or yaks, sheep, goats, and camels. Reindeer are raised by the Tsaatan people who live in the northwest areas around the lake Khovsgol bordering Russian Siberia. 

A life of wrestling with the vagaries of the seasons evident on Jemina’s face, skin, and wiry body. This vast almost limitless space, a tough place in winter.

first sign pf spring

I saw living proof that Mongolia is one of the least densely populated countries on earth when standing in the centre of camp:

  • no sight or sound of another person,
  • a panorama of unfolding pastures, dusty paddocks,
  • and hilly peaks draped with snow.

A wonderful gift to experience, I’m in awe at this wilderness and appreciate the lifestyle enjoyed in Mordialloc.

Ada had been worried and apologetic about some facilities being closed. But why would I mind using the squat toilet on the edge of the site, or top and tailing at the wash basin rigged to be fed by a bucket of water?

I thought of an old Monty Python skit ( Four Yorkshiremen) – these facilities luxury indeed compared to how some people have to live, without shelter, clean water or decent food!

Because of the nomadic lifestyle and the climate, Mongolians have always played a variety of games and are skilful horse riders.  I saw where outdoor games could be played but had to make do reading about the cultural heritage developed over many centuries to suit nomadic life.

Likewise, the restaurant and other communal buildings, BBQ and bar remained closed for my one night, but I could imagine the delight of tourists in peak season.

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After a wander around and peeking in windows, I’m sure would-be guests during peak tourist season could consider it ‘glamping’!

Looking at my notebook, I read “has it only been a day since I flew into Mongolia?”

“I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.”

Carl Sagan

An Awakening of the Land – and Me…
Mairi Neil

From the plane, I spy brown, dry earth
and undulating hills
peaks dotted with snow
the iced mountains and streaked steppes
like shattered shards of glass
nomadic houses – gers
could be iced buns or polka dots
instead of circles of civilisation
and isolation

The plane manoeuvres around mountains
and patchwork dark green shadows
forest in a land famous for no trees
Thick cloud envelops
accompanied by an ominous grunt…
the landing gear drops
we hover over mountains
panda seat display announces
two degrees on the ground

river tributaries appear
flowing free
or perhaps just melting snow
as isolated gers multiply
blend to suburbs of Ulaanbaatar…

A long straight highway glimpsed
high-rise buildings glint in sunlight
seat upright, seat belt fastened
alert and nervous
I anticipate the adventure ahead…

 

me with hosts at ger camp
Jemina and daughter Aruna run the Buuviet Ger Camp

Notes By Candlelight…1

Tonight I’m in a ger – the only guest in the village because winter is not quite over. Aruna and her father Jemina run the place. Although only 22 years old, Aruna is extremely competent. She had to step up when her mother died 6 years ago. Her father is 59. An older brother and sister have moved away with their own families.

Aruna told me she has a pony, also books and television as relaxation and entertainment. She writes in her journal. Like young people everywhere she has a mobile phone and loves the Internet.

Our conversations stilted and difficult because of the language barrier. How I wished we could communicate better – I’d love to know what she reads and writes… and of her dreams for the future.

I can imagine how busy it will be in the summer – a lot of work for a young woman. I feel guilty at a fleeting moment of regret that the new washing and toilet facilities are not operational. No luxury hotel comforts for me. Not even electricity in the ger because it’s not worth connecting the battery for just one guest.

On the plus side, I’m experiencing a more traditional lifestyle as I read by candlelight, use the squat toilet, and sponge myself down at the tiny sink with water from a bucket!

I told Heidi at Flower Travel I wasn’t “precious” so in modern day vernacular I’m “sucking it up”!

When we migrated to Australia in 1962, the house we rented for four years had no septic tank or sewer. We trekked down to the bottom of the backyard day or night and used the ridiculously named “dry toilet” or dunny in Aussie vernacular. (My father and brothers often peeing in the bushes or ‘by the lemon tree’!)

The pan emptied each week by the “night man,” who actually came during the day. And what a grump he was too, but with such a “shit” job, no wonder!

My Aussie Childhood
Mairi Neil

I grew up at Croydon
when the bush was thick around,
milk and bread delivered
to a tuneful clip-clop sound

kookaburras laughed and swooped
to steal our pet cat’s food
it wasn’t Snappy Tom, of course
but ‘roo meat, raw and good.

Streets were mainly dirt tracks,
collection of potholes and clay,
most people walked or cycled
and strangers said, ‘G’day!’

Our weatherboard house peeled
paint – the tin roof leaked too,
verandahs sagged under honeysuckle,
rooms added as the family grew.

Mosquito nets caused claustrophobia,
possums peered down chimneys three
but the dunny banished down the back,
the most terrifying memory, for me.

Electricity only brightened inside,
so torch or candle had to suffice,
night noises from shadows in bushes,
and the smelly dunny – not nice!

The path to the toilet lined with trees
growing tall to seek the sun
but in the scary, dark cloak of night
branches became arms from which to run.

But during the day, our block was heaven
definitely a children’s Adventureland
blue tongues, geckos, tadpoles, and frogs
all shared my world so grand.

A snake was the greatest danger
or a bull ant bite on the toe,
a rule carefree wonderful time –
my rose-coloured glasses show!

Notes By Candlelight…2

More often than not it was outside squat toilets when I visited communes and factories and some tourist attractions in China in 1979 – the unforgettable smell of human waste reminiscent of the latrines we dug at girl guide camps.

That ‘farmyard’ smell triggers many memories just as staring at the flickering candle flame does!

Sipping a cup of Nerada tea I’ve brought from Australia I wonder how many others have sat in this ger?

The teabags and a tube of Vegemite brought along as emergency rations. A cup of tea does wonders and Vegemite on bread or cracker biscuits as good as a meal!

Deep breaths and I imagine the eucalypts in the garden at Mordialloc, the sweet smell of Mary Jane’s favourite incense that permeates the hall, the smoothness of Aurora’s fur as she cuddles me each night.

Will this trip invigorate me or just emphasise my aloneness – or make me lonely ?

A big drawback of solo travel – not having someone to talk over the day’s experiences – the joys, upsets… the wonder.

My first published poem in the form of a bookmark resulted from a writing workshop where the teacher lit a candle in the centre of the table and told us to pause, reflect and write…

is it just tiredness or feeling overwhelmed that is blocking inspiration tonight?

There were several hours to walk and explore the camp and beyond. I discovered a prayer site of shaman ritual. Shamanism deeply rooted in nomadic Mongolia and lives happily with Buddhism. You often see the circles and cairns where rituals have taken or will take place and memorial stupas.

People ask to be healed, for good crops or to do well in an exam or job interview – many reasons to thank the gods – and ask for guidance from ancestors.

Buddhism and Shamanism coexist in Mongolia and are often interconnected. 

Stalin’s purges led to religious orders being decimated. At the time 25% of the male population were Buddhist priests so you can see why he considered them a threat and you can also understand why people clung to shamanism. 

In the solitude, I felt relaxed, daylight drifted away as a veil of serenity fell.  I discovered a spiritual sanctuary amidst ancient stones. I could be sitting in an empty church – sitting quietly in contemplation without sermons or fuss.

The rocks materialising into shapes –  eyes, faces, figures – as if ancient folk still live.

Three monks in their cowls with heads bent in prayer, a mother, and her child, a grandparent squatting with a child leaning on his shoulder; animals too – crouching, lying, poised and cowed.

Who comes here? Is the discarded bottle Jemina’s? Is this where he comes to grieve? Or do people gather for spiritual salvation? 

Secret cavities leading to where? Did Mankind begin here? Do ancient souls still hover?

I see brown open landscape, miles of emptiness
I hear the cry of a crow – a kite circles
I smell aromatic herbs and woodsmoke
I taste the tang of unfamiliar meat sauces from dinner
I touch textured rock scarred by time and weather

I imagine the endless universe… the circle of life

ger camp from hill.jpg

There are only two faces to existence – birth and death –
and life survives them both, just so sunrise and sunset
are not essentially different:
it all depends on whether one is facing east or west.

Joy Mills, Release into Light

Nature called…

The toilet was far enough away to be disconcerting in the dark even although I had a torch.

There were holes and uneven ground caused by the marmots coming out of hibernation and despite knowing I was the only one booked into the camp, a walk across open land amongst shadows and the silhouettes of buildings, conjured the fearful (although unfounded) sensation that people were watching, perhaps even wishing me harm! 

Imagination a curse at times and never more so in a strange place in the dark.

No wonder I took Ada’s suggestion and snuck behind the tent and peed – it was about 3 or 4 am, absolutely freezing, the only sound my stream of urine scalding and steaming tufts of dead grass and melting thick frost.

Of course, I did have a middle-class moment – what if Jemina was up and about? But that was fleeting and made me smile at my own ridiculous thoughts.

What about ticks?

Ada told me a story about her friend being bitten on the head and contracting Lyme Disease. It was tick season and according to Ada, they love the wind and your hair, but will also go up your leg.  I dutifully wore hat, scarf, and boots when outside.

Fear made me check the bedclothes and the wheels of my luggage – just in case!  When a fly got through the door with me, I watched where it flew as if an enemy ready to attack. What a relief to see it leave via the circular gap in the roof dome. 

No windows in the ger but starlight, moonlight, sunlight, first light, all through the hole in the roof for the chimney.

And what about wolves? The wolf pelt in the corner of the office a stark reminder they exist.

wolf pelt

Jemina crept into the ger at midnight trying not to wake me, his torch flickering as he fed the fire with coal. He must have watched for smoke or lack of – and his timing spot on. (Ada had warned me Jemina would need to stoke the fire when we had an explanatory tour of the place before she returned to the city.)

This is bizarre, I thought as I watched his silhouette from the comfort of the bed. What will the girls think when I tell them I agreed that a man who couldn’t communicate with me, could come into my unlocked bedroom in the middle of the night, albeit to stoke the fire. (Another middle-class, western moment?)

The torchlight bright and blinding and Jemina’s face masked with a scarf against the bitter cold as he concentrated on his duties. Hunkering in front of the fire, fiddling with fuel to encourage flames, poking and rearranging with expertise. The wood stirred, flared and crackled to life.

There’s a talent to lighting a fire and heating a stove. Mum had it. So did Dad, although no surprise there because he was a fireman and later steam train driver. Not much Dad didn’t know about fires. Maybe he taught Mum, but since she was brought up on a farm in Northern Ireland where creating heat for cooking an important element in the skillset for country living, perhaps their expertise mutual.

In the modern world, push-button electric, gas or oil heaters ensure generations have no idea how to make or regulate a wood or coal fire.

  • Before John and I renovated our home in Mordialloc, the only hot water came from a wood-burning Raeburn stove. Every weekend John sat for hours in the shed chopping enough kindling for me to use during the week. When Anne came along, it was easier to boil kettles for her baby baths. I recall the joy of instant hot water when a gas hot water service installed.
  • I  remember my parents spreading a newspaper over the fireplace in Scotland to block out air (except for what came down the chimney or ‘lum’ as we called it) until kindling caught. I can see and smell sandalwood tapers used to light the fire – a present from a childless aunt who could afford to travel to exotic places.
  • Images of the coal man surface – heaving and emptying a large hessian bag full of coal into a bunker next to the kitchen. The smell of lanolin, the pink barrier cream Mum massaged into her hands for protection before she handled the coal, and set the fire.

As I skipped down memory lane, Jemina gave the fire his complete attention, but when he realised I was awake, he mimed that he’d return at 2.00am.

Earlier in the evening, the inside of the ger became unpleasantly hot – the coal and wood heater did too good a job in the well-insulated, enclosed space so I mimed to Jemina not to bother returning; I’d be warm enough.

He nodded, and before leaving placed a bucket near my bed.  I assumed it was to pee in if needed.

Jemina crab-walked to the door and braved the cold. I hoped, he understood I didn’t want to be disturbed at 2.00 am. The door of the ger tiny, and crouching definitely the best way to get in and out or earn a bump on the head like me when I forgot to duck coming back in after my peeing expedition!

The fire nearly out so I rekindled the flames and added more wood. I wonder if Jemina is watching for smoke from his ger…

A traditional yurt (from the Turkic languages) or ger (Mongolian) is a portable, round tent covered with skins or felt and used as a dwelling by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia.

Traditional gers consist of an expanding wooden circular frame carrying a felt cover. The felt is made from the wool of sheep, goat or yak and the timber, to make the external structure, is obtained by trade because of the absence of suitable trees on the steppes.

Gers traditionally did not have solid doors. These fitted as camps have grown and the people don’t move as often. Traditional doors were heavy carpets or appliquéd quilts.

ger door

A Visit With A Nomadic Family

Earlier in the day, there was a quick stop with a traditional nomadic family: Mum, her son, and daughter-in-law, plus two kids of 6 and 7. A brother was visiting with his two children and another relative and her children. 

The place packed. Everyone, apart from our hostess, sitting along one side of the room while Ada, Bemba and myself, sit on the other.

A washing machine is churning because it is Sunday, the day they wash their clothes. In between entertaining us, the mother hassles the children for dirty clothes – well I assume that’s what she is saying as they search under chairs and behind boxes and produce items of clothing. The domestic tasks of parenting and managing a household universal – no translation needed!

It’s ingenious the way the ger is built, to be collapsed and packed up at least four times a year. Sometimes they only move 20-25 kilometres, other times 50 – 100 kilometres, depending on where the family’s cattle and horses graze.

This family has horses and display medals they’ve won at Naadam, the great summer festival in July.

They are Buddhist and a shrine sits next to a giant flat-screen TV, the children and some adults engrossed watching Shaun The Sheep!

A traditional musical instrument with horse handle proudly displayed, although no one plays. It sits beside a traditional saddle and ancient costume of hat and whip. They are important symbols to show pride in Mongolian culture and heritage and have been passed down through the family.

musical instrument horse handle

The various ‘sides’ of the ger are designated: woman’s area – kitchen gear (what a surprise!), a symbolic or ornamental area, sleeping area, bathing and washing area.

Gers may look the same from the outside but like our homes are different inside – this one elaborate and heavily furnished. Bright carpets insulate the walls as well as woven hangings.

As an honoured guest, I’m given milky tea swirled in a large steel basin. Milk drained – I have no idea if it was from a horse, yak, cow, goat or sheep. They use whatever is available and make milk, cream, butter, cheese, and yoghurt.

 sweet tea in ger

I ate little round shaped bites like doughnuts, the other plate is dried yoghurt, tasty but so hard you need strong teeth. A sweet/salty butter treat. Mixing salt and sugar common here. The children suck on slices of dried butter as if icy poles.

The tea an acquired taste – sweet – and leaving an aftertaste. Since teenage, I’ve preferred unsweetened black tea and because Ada knew what to expect she asked the hostess to pour only half a cup for me. 

Not wanting to offend, I drink the tea and taste everything offered. Taking food with an acquired taste, not something I cheerfully volunteer for. I’m not an adventurous eater and rarely eat out, rather I eat to live, not live to eat and never watch cooking shows currently popular on television.

There were plenty of smiles and friendly looks and my visit is an income stream for the family, especially in winter when there are not a lot of alternatives.

When they settle in an area like the National Park there is a government school closer to town and the children board there. When I visited, it was the week of school holidays a time when lots of families visit each other. (Not that different from us really.)

To the Mongols, the family unit is everything.

Having to communicate through Ada limiting and because it was a special and busy family day, I felt like an intruder and didn’t want to subject our hostess with twenty questions.

The children too interested in the television to care about visitors, but one woman (family, neighbour?) never took her eyes off me for the half hour or so of our visit. Her intense stare disconcerting and when we left, I could hear daughter, Mary Jane’s voice, “Well, that was awkward!

On reflection, despite the generous hospitality, it was indeed! Perhaps a group visiting makes the dynamics different or maybe I just wasn’t prepared for all the distractions under one roof – this is where having a separate room for guests may have advantages.

Getting to know someone and being invited to their home different to this organised visit. I remember experiencing the same embarrassed reaction after a visit to a commune in China. It just seemed a discourteous intrusion – maybe if it had been a longer visit, more relaxed and we could communicate better I wouldn’t feel so bad.

However, in the morning, all negative feelings disappeared as I lay in bed trying to identify sounds –

Dawn

‘Peeho, peeho’ the call of a bird?
Persistent and guttural like a pigeon but not ‘coo coo’
Silence after 30 seconds.
A soft whish, swish – flapping?
A peek outside –
an eagle or kite swooping, catching breakfast
an unlucky marmot fails to escape
a magical Mongolian moment I won’t forget!

Despite a disturbed night and strange bed, I feel relaxed… a step towards serenity and inner peace?

Chinggis Khaan – A Fascinating Leader Loved and Revered

chinggis khaan statue again copy.jpeg

Day Two – Chinggis Khaan Equestrian Statue and Museum Complex

The drive to the outskirts of the city and beyond revealed the vastness of the country and scenes confirming western assumptions. Miles of dusty, brown and sandy soil, hills and distant mountains bare of greenery after winter snows.

There were horses, goats, sheep, yaks and cattle grazing – all chewing pasture I couldn’t see from the car! Individual gers and clusters in camps dotted the landscape – at last, the something different I’d hoped for.

bird of prey copy.jpeg

Chinggis Khaan a revered leader in the past and today. He and his sons ruled during the ‘Great Khan’ period in 13 and 14 centuries. The 40-metre statue built to honour his achievements, not only for Mongolia but his extensive empire, which influenced half of the known world. 

The visitor complex is 10 metres tall with 36 columns representing the 36 Khans from Chinggis to Ligdan Khaan and designed by sculptor D Erdenebileg and architect J Enkhjargal, it was erected in 2008.

It is the world’s tallest equestrian statue and has the certificate to prove it!

tallest equestrian statue chinggis kahn

On horseback, Chinggis Khaan faces east towards his birthplace, holding the golden whip, which according to legend he found on the bank of the Tuul River at Tsonjin Boldog, the site of the monument. It is 54 kilometres east of Ulaanbaatar and a must-see for anyone visiting Mongolia.

Chinggis Khaan or who we, in the West, refer to as Ghengis Khan was an impressive leader and achiever. I had no idea the Mongolian Empire extended to almost half the world. So many ethnic groups, cultures and religions under the Mongolian umbrella.

Art, Culture, Traditional Craftsmanship On Display

Cultural influences from Turkey, Hungary, Persia, China and beyond were peacefully incorporated. Gifts to the world from his era include games such as chess, knuckles (bones), the precursor of puzzles like the Rubik Cube (invented 1974 by a Hungarian), embroideries, beadwork, tapestries, silk costumes and painting, horsemanship, intricate leatherwork, metalwork and more.

Exhibitions cover Bronze Age and Xiongnu archaeological cultures and fossil finds. Traveller accounts describe the welcome and easy trade and great organisation and tolerance across borders. 

A lesson in real greatness for Trump and current world leaders perhaps!

Chinggis Khaan, also regarded as the greatest military leader in world history although only commanding an army of 100,000 soldiers.

How did he manage to conquer and control countries with populations numbering millions and his dynasty last 150 years?

Some say it was because he felt a great love for his family and his people and would sacrifice his life for them. Others that he was clever and in love with learning.

Since Mongolia parted company with Soviet Russia in 1991, the legend of Chinggis Khaan and his legacy have become increasingly important as part of the Mongolian cultural identity and national pride.

It is also important to those Mongols living in other states, established in Chinggis Khaan’s time such as Afghanistan (the Hazaras), parts of China and the old USSR.  His successful leadership and rule,  the establishment of law and unification of nomadic societies, a constant source of interest to academics and historians.

The following poem was published in a university paper in Inner Mongolia about the Yunnan Mongol community who number under 7000. They identify as Mongol yet only came to the attention of Chinese officials and academia in the late 1970s.

We Are the Sons and Daughters of the Steppes: Children and Grandchildren of Chinggis Khan

We are the sons and daughters of the steppes,
children and grandchildren of Chinggis Khan.
Under the military standard of Zandan,
riding horses and holding bows, we fought
across vast lands of the North and South.
Passing the steppes on our magical horses
and crossing the Jinsha River on (inflated)
leather bags and bamboo rafts,
we camped at the Ka Qu Tuo Frontier,
under the military standard
of Zandan.

We are the sons and daughters of the steppes,
children and grandchildren of Chinggis Khan.
We planted trees and set up schools and promoted
culture and civilisation, and our awesome
cavalry maintained peace and harmony.
Under the leadership of Zandan
we guarded the southern frontier.

We are the sons and daughters of the steppes,
children and grandchildren of Chinggis Khan.

Zandon was the son of Altemur, commander of the Mongol Yuan troops during the Yuan dynasty, his HQ at Qutuo Pass.

(The Yunnan Mongols renewed interest in genealogy similar to that of the African Americans inspired by the novel Roots. They want their children to be able to speak and read and write Mongolian and have imported teachers.)

Chinggis Khaan was a deeply spiritual person but also practical. The changes he brought to the world long-lasting. He encouraged widespread education.

In his time,  people wandered freely, traded, mixed and learnt from each other, sharing ideas as well as goods. Nomadic peoples who glanced at the horizon, ever-mindful of Mother Nature, knowing instinctively where and when to move to survive. 

Many still do this today in modern Mongolia, respecting tribal or clan connections. 

Now???

In Europe and other parts of the world, there is so much suspicion, fear and hatred of the other. Border forces and farces. Freedom to travel not a given anymore. Permits needed to build houses never mind move across country with all your goods and chattels!

What would the world look like if Chinggis Khaan had never lived?

Interesting to speculate and those thoughts and much more enriched my visit as I examined exhibits of everyday utensils, clothes, belt buckles, knives, tales of sacred animals,  ancient tools, religious artefacts and objects made or gilded with gold.

 

khan for a day indeed
Chinggis Khaan’s “throne” – I imagined being a ‘khan’ for the day!

 

Outside in the grounds, I was at last up close to a traditional ger albeit dwarfed by statues representing Mongol warriors – the army that protected Chinggis Khaan and also advanced his empire.

From the top of the main statue, the view is stunning and gives you a perspective of the size of Mongolia – vast swathes of dusty plains and snow-capped mountains sparsely populated.

Few trees survive here because of the wind.

At the ger, a little boy three or four years old was fascinated by my speech. He overheard me speaking and approached us to ask Ada, 

How is she talking? What is she saying?”

I smiled and said, “Hello.”

He mimicked me, “Hello, hello.”

Then grabbing his little friend by the arm, he followed me repeating, hello. Perhaps my Scottish accent was a new experience!

I’d smile and answer, “hello” and they’d run a few feet away or to their parents but always returned to dance around us, repeating “hello“.

Ada went into teacher mode and after a quick lecture to the boys in Mongolian, which I assumed was on courtesy, she sent them packing with a critical look at their parents.

The boy and his family left to annoy the man with birds of prey on display.

In the shadow of the horse statues, it was easy to envisage the scenes that inspired the art work I bought from the young artist in Sukhbaatar Square. The image of Chinggis Khaan painted on leather and the two watercoloured cards, contrasting day and night, evocative of the period as were many pictures in the complex.

All this public reverence of Chinggis Khaan is relatively new and linked to Mongolia’s independence from the Soviet Union, although his importance to traditional Mongolian culture never faltered.

The symbol as such has shown not only an amazing level of tenacity but also a high degree of adaptability in taking on new meanings in relation to different historical contexts and different socio-political entities. For the Mongols, it has evolved from a symbol of imperial legitimacy and privilege grounded in absolute kinship ideology and relevant exclusively to the Golden Descendants, to a potent symbol of ethnic/national identity shared by Mongols all over the world, just as the historical Mongols have gradually evolved from an empire of tribal confederation to a nation of and ethnic entity of solidarity. Thus the claim “we are the children and grandchildren of Chinggis Khan”…

Chinggis Khan, From Imperial Ancestor to Ethinic Hero, Almaz Khan

A famous Mongolian rock group, Hongk composed a song about Chinggis Khaan and performed it in March 1990 at the time the new Mongolian Republic was being formed.

Forgive Us

Forgive us for not daring
to breathe your name.
Though there are thousands of statues,
there is none of you.
We admired you in our hearts
but we dared not breathe your name.

The Equestrian Statue and Complex, plus the statues in Ulaanbaatar have rectified the suppression of this important symbol of the Mongol during the Soviet period.

(Founded in 1924, the Mongolian People’s Republic was, until the breakup of the USSR and its empire in 1991, the oldest Eastern Bloc country as well as the second oldest socialist country in the world – after the USSR. Despite political and economic dependence on Russia, much of the national culture enjoyed autonomy and protection.)

There is also a resurgence of Mongolian language and traditional script and a recognition Uighurjin Mongol script has carried history, culture, traditions and customs and fortifies Mongolian independence.

Written vertically, the characters take different forms from the beginning, middle, and end of the word. The oldest existing text believed to be on Chinggis Khaan’s Stone – the replica outside the National Museum in Ulaanbaatar and the original at the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia.

Mongolian script is not only a writing system but an art form with meaningful strokes. The script’s “tig” strokes were developed in various styles, resulting in an almost abstract style used in calligraphy nowadays.

Huge examples hang in the foyer of the complex with the rich heritage of Mongolian manuscripts categorised into three categories: religious, historical and folklore.

When the Russians influenced Mongolia, the Cyrillic script became official for public buildings and street names and in schools but Uighurjin is making a comeback.

I watched a young girl demonstrate the script and for a couple of dollars, she wrote my name, which looks much more impressive than it does in English!

In between being immersed in the ancient culture, absorbing historical facts, and the context of impressive and expansive exhibits there were interactions with people, like the little boy.

I discovered I wasn’t the only one scared of heights yet determined to climb to the top of the equestrian statue. I chose the stairs and reached the top to a breathtaking view. A lovely family took pictures of me and I of them while we huddled and clung to the wall to make sure the gale force wind didn’t blow us across the steppes.

Outside there was a wedding party using the monument for stunning photographs of their special day just as many Melburnians choose Parliament House or Federation Square or other iconic sites.

wedding in Mongolia

Watching the wedding party prompted a discussion with Bemba and Ada.

Bemba is the youngest of eight siblings. She is not married and has no children. 

Ada is one of five siblings. She married but did not have a traditional big wedding. She has two children. A daughter lives in Melbourne and is studying her Masters in International Accounting at a QUT campus. Ada taught Russian and English in secondary school before working as a tour guide. 

Mongolians traditionally had big families but like westerners, they have fewer children nowadays probably a maximum of three. However, the family unit is still everything.

Ada was born in a ger and grew up in one. Her parents have ‘returned to country’ some distance from Ulaanbaatar and at 76 and 80 years old they have moved into their first house and will enjoy the comfort of permanence, running water, and an indoor toilet.

I returned to the complex to visit the toilet and through a joint doorway, the backs of men could be seen as they urinated. Ah, cultural quirks and customs. It reminded me of a visit to France in 1984 when a similar design was used in several places we stopped.

One last look at the magnificent foyer, the beautifully carved pipe resting on the wings of a mythical beast and a photo opportunity beside the giant traditional boot.

Before leaving for the Terelj National park, I bought a card in Mongolian script as a memento.

A silhouette of a horse galloping free beside the word for joy.

mongolian card meaning JOY

I knew that feeling!