The ABC Informs, Educates and Entertains & We Need It More Than Ever!

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Our Public Broadcaster Under Threat – Again

At the Liberal Party Conference yesterday, members urged the Turnbull government to privatise the ABC, a move one Crossbench Senator said is confirmation of the government’s “secret plan” to sell off the public broadcaster.

I don’t believe their plan has ever been secret – it has been on their wish-list for years – especially after that IPA conference in 2012, emceed by Andrew Bolt with keynote speakers: Tony Abbott MP, Gina Rinehart and Rupert Murdoch!!

Abbott and his ilk are nothing but consistent idealogues and persistent.

The 2:1 vote among 100 MPs and Liberal Party members and the fact NOT ONE party member (including the sitting MPs) spoke in opposition to the motion speaks volumes about the Coalition’s goal to break-up and sell this important PUBLIC asset.

The Victorian Branch of the Liberal Party proposed the sale of the ABC as policy in 2013 and if the Coalition is elected again (state or federally), it looks as if they’ll get their wish.

The ABC has a charter, which states they are to inform, entertain and educate. They are funded by our taxes and are answerable to taxpayers.  Commercial broadcasters exist to make a profit for their shareholders.

In Australia commercial media is mainly Murdoch media.

In 2013, when the Coalition were bleating about left-wing bias of the ABC there was a lot of research into the media in Australia:

“Rupert Murdoch controls 130 newspapers, owns 50% of 16 others, has digital media sites for most of them and publishes some 30 magazine titles throughout Australia. He also has interests in the news agency Australian Associated Press (AAP), FoxTel, Newspol, Festival Records, film production and distribution, DVD production and two National Rugby League teams. In Australia, control is exercised through News Limited, wholly owned by News Corporation Limited, an international media giant completely dominated by Murdoch. His son Lachlan is a non-executive chairman of Ten Network Holdings Limited, with TV stations in five State capital cities.”

Barry Tucker – Truth in Media blog

When Gina Rinehart bought into Fairfax, which owns the remaining newspapers, television and radio stations, it was no coincidence that the biggest debate in Australia at the time was over a price on carbon!

Mitchell Collier, the federal vice-president of the Young Liberals, who put up the motion yesterday, reportedly suggested the ABC could be sold to a “media mogul, a media organisation”, or it could be floated on the stock market. No guesses needed as to who that would be!

Do we really have such short memories – what David McKnight said at the time still applies if we sell our national broadcaster!!

  ‘The traditional justification for journalism has been that it can act as a watchdog on powerful government and corporations. What is now occurring is that representatives of one of the most powerful sectors in Australian society, the mining industry, are seeking to dominate one of the important accountability mechanisms in a democracy.”

David McKnight writing online for The Conversation

The current minister overseeing the ABC, Senator Fifield has already made budget cuts of $254 million with the loss of 1000 jobs and he remained silent at the conference!

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We need An Independent Voice Reporting & Investigating The News

The media monopolies ensure the wealthy and powerful have ease of access to express their points of view. The ABC is a much needed independent voice because so far community radio and television are too weak and lack resources to make much of an impact.

The growth of social media has increased the number of voices heard but with terms such as fake news and its reality, we still need to have a trusted source with professional journalists.

The Coalition have been bleating about the left-wing bias of the ABC  for years and use this as a reason for privatisation. But to them, left-wing bias translates as being critical of business, especially big business and ironically Labor Party supporters accuse the ABC of right-wing or pro-government bias!

Market research firm IBISWorld noted in June 2016 that:

The industry’s four largest players, News Australia, Fairfax Media, Seven West Media and APN News and Media, are estimated to account for over 90% of industry revenue in 2015-16. The Australian media landscape is one of the most concentrated in the world. An extremely small number of firms, most notably News Australia and Fairfax Media, publish content that reaches the large majority of Australians.

Investigative Journalism a Necessity

Investigative journalism can only be done if the money and funding are made available to pay for the weeks of necessary digging. The editors of the Guardian newspaper, which has years of quality investigative journalism to its credit expressed a concern about this issue when newspapers started to go online and readers expected their news for free.

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In the last Labor Government, Federal Minister, Stephen Conroy made sure any appointments to the ABC board and chairmanship were at arm’s length from the government. A committee including Gonski and Fels provided shortlists and suggestions during the overhaul. Conroy introduced and increased triennial funding and reaffirmed there would be no adverts – although for online it was ‘no ads on principal websites’.

That all changed once Abbott was elected.

The ABC Board and chairperson Michelle Guthrie need to know we want the broadcaster to remain in public hands, and advert free.  Remember it was John Howard who sold Radio Australia to a born-again Christian group.

The funding to the ABC is never enough to do quality Australian drama hence so many imports from the BBC, but in today’s world there are increasing co-productions and changing commercial partners. However, if we want outstanding Australian drama such as the current series Mystery Road, it is vital we have a broadcaster willing to fight for Australian stories, Australian settings, Australian actors!

Keeping Every Bastard Honest

We must remember the value and achievements of the ABC regarding investigative journalism:

Investigative journalism is a form of journalism in which reporters deeply investigate a single topic of interest, such as serious crimes, political corruption, or corporate wrongdoing. An investigative journalist may spend months or years researching and preparing a report. Practitioners sometimes use the terms “watchdog reporting” or “accountability reporting”.

  • like Chris Masters investigations for Four Corners: Big League (1983) sent the chief magistrate of NSW to prison,
  • Moonlight State (1987) exposed and ended the corrupt rule of Bjelke Petersen in Queensland, and
  • French Connections revealed the French Government’s deliberate sinking of The Rainbow Warrior making headlines throughout the world.
  • The consistent high quality of Four Corners and other ABC programmes whether it be exposing companies like Adani, the extent of domestic violence, the corruption within banks,  the live-baiting in the greyhound racing industry, flaws of the investigations of key gangland murders in Victoria, underpayment of workers in 7-Eleven and other franchises, horrendous conditions in aged care, the neglect of those with a disability, the scandal of the Murray Darling rorts …. the list goes on.

The contribution of SBS has also informed and educated by broadcasts such as the amazing documentary about disastrous economic and ecological effects of the oil spill by BP in the Gulf of Mexico, which ruined towns and livelihoods. The documentary revealed BP’s long history of stuffing up:

2003 their cost cutting meant old machinery not replaced,  2005 machinery over 70 years old produced disaster at a Texas oil refinery, and a huge spill in Alaska in 2006. Workers were told to remain silent or they’d not get compensation.

Only publicly funded news provides this much detail.

Only the ABC published information about the effectiveness of a carbon tax in 17 areas including Scandinavian countries and large provinces in USA and Canada and quoted esteemed British scientist Steven Hopper that to plant a tree is the biggest personal contribution anyone can make to alleviate climate change. Every street should be an avenue.’

A message you will not hear on commercial networks (televsion and radio) whose owners worked consistently to malign, undermine and oust Julia Gillard as Prime Minister. 

Chief of CSIRO (1992-2002), Graham Pearman, an international expert on climate change left the CSIRO in 2004 because the Howard Government refused to listen to his concerns and make long range plans to cope with migrants from the flooded Pacific Islands.

We of course had members of the current government (Abbott, Dutton and Morrison) laugh at Pacific islanders getting their feet wet in 2015 because of rising sea levels!

Why do governments believe that selling off public service companies is in the interest of the public? There has not been a single case where privatisation of a public enterprise becomes a success in terms of providing a better and more cost effective service. (the communications, electricity industries, Commonwealth and State banks, and even Centrelink examples…)

If the Coalition gets their way a privatised ABC will no longer bring us important documentaries or news. There will be less accountability for government departments and politicians, less exposure of corruption, less in-depth analysis of world news and how it affects Australia.

What Can We Do?

  • Donate to or join  the Friends of the ABC and protect the public broadcaster.
  • Telephone, write a letter or email your local member of parliament AND Senator Fifield explaining your concerns, requesting a COMMITMENT to properly funding and resourcing an independent ABC.

Here is what I wrote in 2008 – yes the battle has been going on for a long time – feel free to copy any of the wording!

Dear ABC & SBS Review Panel

This submission is to request that the ABC is rebuilt to an organisational strength to be a producer of high quality content, be commercial-free, accessible to all and that it is well-funded.

It is important that the funding is such that the ABC is independent of

Government and commercial influences. This is particularly true of the fast growing Internet. There is no place for advertising on any ABC network or website.

The ABC must not engage in business activities that risk damaging public trust in its integrity, or influencing content, including the placement of ABC content on commercial websites or alongside commercial advertising. On air announcements should be limited to the ABC’s own services.

We need a public broadcaster that provides a service to all Australians without fee regardless of delivery platform. In this time-poor world, online

Is an essential way to access the ABCE and its archival material records the history of our nation and should be freely accessible to all.

The ABC has a reputation to uphold producing programs of cultural value and intellectual integrity. It should be the foremost producer of innovative quality content without having to rely on outsourced production in any program areas.

Being Australia’s open university the ABC plays a necessary and great role as educator. It is well-resourced to be at the forefront of technological change offering quality content on all delivery platforms: radio television and online.

The national services broadcasting matters of national significance, the regional services linking rural Australia and local services in cities and towns are all so important informing local communities. But also very important is the international presence we have with Radio Australia, a much needed and respected link to so many in countries and this service desperately and urgently needs rebuilt and increased funding.

The ABC Charter must not be changed in any way, which will diminish the ABCE or compromise its independence.

The ABC and SBS should remain separate entities – they have their own distinct voice. The ABC is a comprehensive broadcaster reflecting the full spectrum of interests of the Australian community and SBS focussing on multiculturalism gives Australia its diversity in this global world,  representing the nature of our population.

Please support and fund these important broadcasters to ensure Australia’s art and culture advances and the benefits of democracy are reaped by all Australians and our geographical neighbours.

Many thanks

Mairi Neil, Mordialloc 3195.

 

The campaign has begun… social media galvanised – time to defend and befriend!

 

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Royalty for the Day

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I’ve mentioned before how Dad often recited Rabbie Burns, believing the poems reflected life. At eight years old, I learned the meaning of:

The best-laid schemes of mice and men Gang aft agley And leave us nought but grief and pain, For promised joy

When you are the fourth of six children, special moments with either parent can be few, and in 1961, with Dad working over 40 hours a week as an engine driver, his shiftwork, including weekends, made individual attention, rare indeed. However, I remember spending a whole day with Dad – although we were not entirely alone, but shared the experience with a feisty donkey called Hamish. I consider the day a highlight of my Scottish childhood. images-11 One evening, Dad said, ‘The Sunday School pageant on Palm Sunday is going to have a real donkey.’ Dad was superintendent of St. Ninian’s Sunday School, a Church of Scotland parish accommodating the growing population of Braeside, in post-war Greenock. At the elders’ meeting to discuss ways of engaging non-churchgoing families, someone jokingly suggested that a real donkey on Palm Sunday would draw the crowds. His imagination fired by this casual remark, Dad discussed it with a workmate, Archie Barber who agreed to contact a  friend with a farm on the outskirts of Skelmorlie,  9 kilometres away.

The older boys had football practice, Catriona a commitment with Girl Guides, and Alistair and Rita were too young, so I volunteered to accompany Dad to the farm.

‘You’ll have to wear old clothes,’ Mum said, ‘there won’t be a saddle and the cuddy’s hair will  smell and be greasy.’

Normally, an outing called for Sunday best, and I’d wear the pretty dress sent from Aunt Chrissie in Australia, however, reading mum’s mind, Dad said, ‘We’ll look like a couple of tinkers, but we’ll have fun.’

Saturday came and Dad and I caught a double-decker bus and sat upstairs.  I got to sit by the window. We played I Spy, then counted different colours or types of cars. No competing voices, just the two of us; Dad’s newspaper remaining unopened on his lap.

After what seemed like hours of winding road and stops and starts, we reached Skelmorlie. The farm had a large buttercup meadow. Dad grinned as I held a flower under his chin. Pale flesh glowed. ‘You like butter.’ He tickled me, ‘I love butter.’

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A row of silver birch trees framed the whitewashed farmhouse. The stocky farmer stood beside a tethered donkey. Dad muttered, ‘What a bedraggled animal – thank goodness your mum insisted on old clothes.’

The donkey looked more like a shaggy Highland cow; its mouse-grey, grimy coat in need of a wash. Its short, whiskbroom tail rigid; its huge ears twitching. ‘Meet Hamish,’ the farmer said, ‘I’m afraid, he’s become a bit wild.’

Hamish tugged, kicked his back legs in the air, pushed his ears flat towards the back of his head and brayed. I moved closer to Dad, comforted by the squeeze of his calloused hand. The farmer said, ‘Come away inside and have a cuppa while he gets used to the harness again.’

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A woodburner stove radiated warmth; the kitchen table decorated with plates of freshly baked delights. My mouth watered at the griddle scones, soda bread and apple tart. The farmer’s wife offered me a plate of scones smothered in jam and cream whispering, ‘The one on the end is the biggest.’

Dad accepted a cup of tea and a seat on the comfy black leather sofa, nestled against a limestone wall decorated with black and white photographs. The adults chatted about the weather and Dad passed on news from Archie.

I went to the doorway and watched an uncomfortable Hamish try to wriggle free from the post.  He returned my stare with large white-ringed eyes; the only sound the rasping call of a corncrake hiding in nearby nettles.

I offered Hamish the remains of my scone. He nuzzled my hand with his pink mottled nose, ‘Hee haw!’

I jumped; sure, that Mum heard the bray all those miles away. ‘I’ll get you more food,’ and with that promise I skipped back to the kitchen.

Dad and the farmer were immersed in conversation about the new United States Navy base and Polaris nuclear fleet sited at the nearby Holy Loch. Dad campaigned for Nuclear Disarmament and never missed an opportunity to alert people to the dangers of nuclear bases. We wouldn’t be leaving for some time so I grabbed another scone and pocketed plain biscuits.

‘Your coat is magic, Hamish,’ I confided while explaining his part in the Easter play. I  traced the dark cross on his back with my fingers. Dad had told me about the legend that donkeys had unmarked hides before Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.  People believed the hairs from the crosses on the donkey’s back cured some ailments such as whooping-cough and toothache.

I was wondering if the legend and miracle cures were true when Dad’s voice interrupted my thoughts. ‘Now Hamish is calm we better make a start – it’s a long walk home.’

The farmer lifted me onto the donkey’s back. Hamish was four feet high. It felt like I was on stilts. This was so exciting!  I grinned until my face hurt, especially when the farmer’s wife gave Dad the biggest bag of jelly babies I’d ever seen. ‘Take these and use them wisely. Hamish will be no trouble.’

A few sweets coaxed Hamish from the security of the fields. I clung to his dirty coat. ‘Donkeys love to take dust baths,’ Dad said. ‘They choose a spot in their pasture to dig out and bathe themselves daily.’ I looked at several crumbling cowpats. ‘We won’t think too much about what was in the dirt,’ Dad said with a wink, ‘but he’ll need a good scrub before church tomorrow.’

He chuckled and as an afterthought said, ‘ and so will you!’

Hamish stopped. Donkeys hate water under their feet and always avoid puddles. Dad reverted to jelly baby bribery. Hamish plodded on. When he stopped, a jelly baby, or two, or three, encouraged him. I spoke my thoughts aloud, ‘ I don’t think donkeys are stupid!’ Dad smiled and gave me a jelly baby.

He pointed out marsh violets peeping from beneath a granite boulder. I studied the face almost parallel to mine. Black moustache, thick and neatly groomed, long, patrician  nose all ‘McInnes’s inherited. I sniffed his jet-black hair, Brylcreemed beneath traditional tweed cap. His olive skin, not yet summer brown, revealed the legacy of the survivors of the wrecked Spanish Armada who settled in the Highlands in the sixteenth century. Well that was the story Dad liked to tell.

Suddenly, he burst into song, his magnificent tenor voice encouraging me to join in:

Ev’ry road thro’ life is a long, long road, Fill’d with joys and sorrows too, As you journey on how your heart will yearn For the things most dear to you. With wealth and love ’tis so, But onward we must go. Keep right on to the end of the road, Keep right on to the end, Tho’ the way be long, let your heart be strong, Keep right on round the bend.

High hedgerows of white flowering blackthorn and bramble bushes with clusters of tiny blackberries hid houses from view. Dad’s tackity boots a rhythmic echo as metal tips scraped tarmacadam. Hamish increased his pace to our rousing rendition of the Uist Tramping Song:

Come along, come along, Let us foot it out together, Come along, come along, be it fair or stormy weather, With the hills of home before us and the purple of the heather, Let us sing in happy chorus, come along, come along.

The hillside bloomed, a rainbow of shy snowdrops, proud dandelions, wild hyacinths and delicate daisies. As I swayed on Hamish’s broad back, I was an Arabian princess seeking the lost city of Petra; Lady Guinevere meeting King Arthur, Mary Queen of Scots fleeing Scotland … and when Hamish allowed himself a gentle trot – Annie Oakley heading to join Buffalo Bill in the Wild West. All the tales I’d read at school or in the set of  Arthur Mee Children’s Encyclopaedia at home, swirled through my head and fired my imagination.

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Hamish fancied the buds and reddish-purple twigs of the birch tree. Dad gently tapped my shoulder. My hazel eyes followed his outstretched arm. A baby deer munched on a similar feast nearby. Bambi!  What a thrill to be able to boast about this adventurous day when I went to school.

Six kilometres from home, we reached Inverkip village. Although a Saturday afternoon and many shops were already shut, the village was a popular tourist destination for picnics. Dad tightened his grip, rubbed his whiskers into my neck. ‘Watch out; there’s witches here.’

I giggled, spied a bumblebee dancing above a clump of bluebells. ‘No there’s not.’

‘Oh, yes there is,’ Dad said, his brown eyes serious as he gave me a history lesson. ‘In the 1600s many young women were accused of witchcraft and imprisoned or killed. It wasn’t a good time at all.’ I shuddered and must have paled because Dad immediately changed the mood.

‘Not last night but the night before,’ he recited, ‘three wee witches came to my door. One with a hatchet, one with a drum and one with a pancake stuck to her … bum!’ I roared with laughter. Dad had paused for affect and said the ‘b’ word instead of thumb.

A car backfired. Hamish jumped as a truck drove past, then  froze. The jelly babies disappeared at a faster rate. We were stationary for so long passersby thought Dad a gypsy, selling donkey rides. He gave several children short rides, but refused the shiny coins offered. Grateful parents bought me ice cream, Smarties and Humbugs, and replenished the supply of jelly babies when we revealed Hamish’s addiction.

At last the churchyard appeared in view. In fading daylight, I pretended to be Jesus riding into Jerusalem.  Tethered to a railing, Hamish protested with long mournful brays. He didn’t like being contained in the small unfamiliar space.

The adventure left my legs and bottom aching, but I hid my discomfort.  At dinner that evening, the family listened enthralled as Dad, an amazing raconteur, wittily recounted our day.

Next morning, all the children arrived early to see Hamish. I felt a celebrity too as Dad washed and brushed Hamish for a dress rehearsal. However, Hamish refused to walk up the makeshift ramp into the church despite dangled carrots and a jelly baby trail. Bribery, begging, even scolding, all failed.

The church filled with a congregation eager to see the Easter play. Parents hurriedly cleaned dishevelled children and the pageant proceeded without its star. The play was a success even if Hamish didn’t play his part. Or perhaps he did. Donkeys have a reputation for being obstinate and Hamish was certainly that!

Dad murmured into my ear, ‘The best- laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley,’ and shrugged.

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I wrote this story as a response to ‘special moments with dad’, a common memoir writing prompt. There were other occasions, but this one has always loomed large in my memory.

Have you got a special moment, or moments, you can write about?

Copyright Note:

  • Sir Harry Lauder wrote Keep Right On To The End Of The Road shortly after his son was killed in action in World War I. The Uist Tramping Song is a Celtic folk song we learned at school from a regular BBC program played over the classroom radio. The Rabbie Burns quote from the poem To a Mouse on turning her up in her Nest with the Plough

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

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

 Terrance Hayes at NYT

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

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

Autumn
Mairi Neil

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

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

unpredictable autumn weather
can be quite a pain.

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

A Glimpse of Mordy Foreshore from The Bus
Mairi Neil

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

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

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Autumn Acrostic

Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

Autumn Leaves

Mairi Neil

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

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

I recall more time spent playing hopscotch, skipping, tramping over the fields and hills among the heather (corny as that sounds) than anything else. We also played British Bulldog and the robust Relievers – boisterous games, which certainly kept us fit as well as warm. We performed impromptu plays for each other, along with the regular games of Cowboys and Indians and Robin Hood and his merry men, which reflected the influence of the fledgling British television industry in the 50s and 60s.

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

The first couple of years in Australia we transplanted many of these games, revelling in the fact the weather was so much kinder. We could play outside for most of the year – no need to hibernate from winter snow. All those childhood hours, playing outside in different continents, provide wonderful memories.

Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”

Marthe Troly-Curtin

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

AUTUMN
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

Autumn in Melbourne is a time of reflection for many people. It coincides with Easter, the most important Christian festival, and the one celebrated with the greatest joy. I was brought up in a Christian household and have many happy memories participating in rituals that gave meaning to our beliefs and practices.

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

In Scotland, and for many years here in Australia, we painted boiled eggs and rolled them down a hillside, the winner being the family member whose egg survived with the least cracks. This ritual (I think!) based on the stone rolled away from the tomb where the body of Jesus had been placed. However, the most important part of the tradition being family get-togethers, sharing a meal and enjoying hot cross buns and each other’s company. There was also Pancake (Shrove)Tuesday, which was a treat.  All genuinely happy times.

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

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

Sister Cate's quilt block

Autumn hosts Australia’s commemoration of WWI on ANZAC Day. A special celebration this year because it is 100 years since the landing on the Turkish beaches of Gallipoli. ANZAC Day a ritual we only discovered when we migrated here in 1962. There is a family link because one of Dad’s Australian ancestors enlisted and went to Gallipoli.  George Alexander McInnes, only 19 years old when he died of enteric fever, six months after joining the Australian Imperial Force, raised in Williamstown. He is buried in Chatby Military Cemetery, Alexandria, Egypt.

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

Postcards from Gallipoli
Mairi Neil

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

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

Autumn Haiku

Mairi Neil

The sea melds with sky
Dark shore dreams of light caress
And whimsy clouds flee

Holidays at last!
Slippery stairs to the sea
Leads to splashing fun

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

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

Advance Care Planning is Good for your Health

When people not used to speaking out are heard by people not used to listening then real change can be made’

John O’Brien (2007)

For over five years I have been a volunteer consumer representative at Central Bayside Community Health Services and often attend forums and workshops run by the Health Issues Centre. On Friday morning, I caught a train into the city to take part in a focus group about Advance Care Planning. As I’ve mentioned before, participation in events like this is a way of giving back, or contributing to a health system that despite its flaws, saved my life. Hopefully, the system improves when many different opinions are considered and ordinary people stay engaged.

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The discussion about planning for future health care needs and end of life wishes an apt one, considering I have a friend from university days currently undergoing palliative care and I know several others with failing health or with relatives in similar situations. All part of growing older I know, although I don’t want to be accused of being ageist.

The Health Issues Centre has been funded by the Department of Health and Human Services to talk with community members about their experiences of planning for future health care. How people want to be treated when they become ill, issues around the end of life, and if you have started to have this conversation with partners and family, what challenges have been discovered.

They have also been asked to test an internet-based tool that helps to identify personal values and record wishes regarding treatment. E-health is developing rapidly with the aim that most people will have an electronic file of their health information that can be accessed from anywhere in Australia. Your wishes about what treatment you want and what you will refuse can be noted.

Participants in the focus groups regarding Advance Care Planning discussed several questions:

  • Do you think about your health care needs into the future?
  • If time was limited, what treatment approach would you want?
  • Are you responsible for making sure someone else’s future health care needs and wishes are met?
  •  Would you use an online tool to help you identify your wishes for future health care?

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The group I attended were all Seniors and over sixty years of age – a demographic bombarded with advertisements about future lifestyle and health care needs. The Health Issues Centre, in partnership with Cabrini Health, ran the focus group and we discussed issues around planning for future health care. The information collected will be used to guide the work of the Department of Health and Human Services in relation to advanced care planning for Victorians.

Making sure you receive the health care you want’ was the central point of our roundtable discussion.

  • What are your concerns around life and health as you grow older?
  • Is there more to healthcare than keeping people alive?
  • If time was limited what treatment approach would you want?
  • What information and support would you need to plan your future health care?
  • If needed, do you have someone who could advocate for your wishes?
  • Have you shared your wishes with someone you trust?

The discussion recorded, and once transcribed, participants promised a copy of the main points raised.

We certainly gave the facilitators something to think about, beginning with challenging the title ‘Advance Care Planning,’ which appears to be interpreted by most people as end of life planning. One participant commented she was ‘getting older, not old!’ Preparing for health and lifestyle changes as you age does not, and should not, begin and end with palliative care issues.

I suggested more positive words would still let people know what the information was about. ‘Future Wellbeing’ or ‘Caring (or Preparing) for the Future’ would extend the discussion to everyone, not just seniors. After all, no one has a crystal ball and disease or accident can strike at any age and an advance care plan needed. Young people should be involved in the conversation.

In my writing classes I have several young people with an acquired brain injury because of car accidents – they need to be involved in planning for their future healthcare.

Although we were all seniors on Friday, there was diversity among the participants and our life (and death) experiences considerable. Everyone had thought deeply about growing old, everyone wanted to avoid a nursing home, and all, without exception wanted ‘death with dignity’ legislation. Several had already lost partners or other family members with positive and negative experiences of the health system. Some had a Living Will in place or Medical Power of Attorney.

These discussions need to happen and it is an important initiative. I was shocked at stories of elder abuse, the vulnerability of people relying on family members only interested in property or bank accounts. A representative from a multi-cultural organisation offered examples of elderly people being easily manipulated by grandchildren more fluent in English.

At one stage, listening to anecdotal evidence, I thought I must be unusual because I have a strong loving relationship with my two daughters and trust them implicitly to care for me if ever needed and to carry out my end of life wishes. In fact, because of what happened during my treatment for breast cancer, they already had to make decisions for me, run the household and deal with finances. However, it’s obvious not everyone has such comfort.

If you need more information and guidance or are worried about your health needs the following websites and phone numbers will be useful:

Council of the Ageing (COTA) 1300 13 50 90; www.cotavic.org.au
Advance Care Planning Australia www.advancecareplanning.org.au
Better Health Channel www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au (search for advance care plans)
Office of the Public Advocate 1300 30 93 37; www.publicadvocate.vic.gov.au

As well as varied experiences with family, participants shared their lack of confidence negotiating legalities like power of attorney, writing wills and the various cultural sensitivities around ageing, ill-health and dying. There was a role for government, especially the Departments of Health and Justice to ensure the best advice and assistance is available, if needed. Some people may be in a relationship where a partner refuses to discuss failing health, facing death and the future. Living in ‘the now’ or fearful that discussing deteriorating health may tempt fate!

I hope negative feedback about the general attitude of health care professionals towards older people will be addressed. Tales of GPs and others, showing lack of respect, being patronising and not listening properly, made me grateful I have good rapport with my GP, enjoying excellent care for over 20 years. Along with me, only one other participant, would go to the GP as the point of entry into Advance Care Planning.

People with mental health issues and those who can’t make decisions for themselves, need an advocate and definitely need a document guiding healthcare professionals, specifically in regard to surgical operations and whether resuscitation is desired.

Participants feared that nursing homes and hospitals may revoke any advance care plan, which indicated this conversation has a long way to go and dissemination of information must be a priority. Everyone acknowledged there was a need for better health literacy and many brochures, documents and websites need to be rewritten for clarity and understanding.

The meeting went over time even although the two facilitators did an excellent job of keeping everyone on topic. The group proved that people are interested in planning for future healthcare and have ideas about how to go about it. I’ll be interested to read the transcriptions of all the focus groups, although I’m aware many people are excluded from similar conversations because we have a two-tiered health system – private and public. It may be more subtle than in the United States, but your bank balance does count when it comes to choosing healthcare in Australia. Waiting lists can miraculously shorten if you have private health insurance. Money can give you a choice.

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I met several interesting people and gained insight into behaviour and areas  I didn’t know a lot about. Grateful for being given the opportunity to be heard, to share my story and thoughts, and hear the thoughts and stories of others, I look forward to hearing more about the Planning for Future Healthcare Project.

In the meantime I’ll  register my plan for easy access on E-health – access I hope won’t be needed for a long time in the future!

Writing Family History and Life Stories as Literary Non-Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Literary Non-Fiction – Marrying Creative Reminiscing with Factual Events when Writing Memoir

Nonfiction is a very old genre. Go back to The Confessions of St. Augustine. For so long, individuals have attempted to understand how one lives and what one is to make of one’s life…

There is a bit of self-congratulations in “literary nonfiction.” One reason I prefer it is because it embeds the work in a tradition and a lineage. Instead of implying this is something new, it says this type of writing has been around for a long, long time. In English literature, there is the great tradition of the English essay, with Samuel Johnson, Hazlitt and Lamb, Robert Louis Stevenson and de Quincey, Matthew Arnold, McCauley, Carlisle, Beerbohm, and on into the twentieth century, with Virginia Woolf and George Orwell. By saying you write literary nonfiction, you’re saying that you’re part of that grand parade.

Phillip Lopate, 2008

This week I’m struggling to write a piece for the celebration of the life of a dear friend, Margaret who is not expected to survive much longer, in the palliative care ward of Calvary Hospital. Too frail to be moved as planned, to Canberra’s hospice, Clare Holland House, she has been shuffled in and out of  ICU, but is now in a private ward crammed with flowers and cards, where she can say goodbye to a constant stream of visitors, the attention and outpouring of love a tribute to how many lives she has touched here and overseas.

We flatted together when I  lived in Canberra attending ANU, we waitressed together at the Staff Centre on campus, we shared tragedies and triumphs, attended demonstrations for Aboriginal Land Rights and Peace, shared a love of reading, history and travel.  I’m eternally grateful for some of the memories we created together including some valuable life lessons on my road to maturity.

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Always practical, Margaret helped me through a devastating crisis offering more than sympathy and emotional support. A few years older than my twenty years, her wisdom and care saved my life and sanity.

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Her friendship, one of Life’s blessings, as was the opportunity to fly to Canberra recently and spend four days with her and some other friends, before her health deteriorated.  Three friends have been stalwarts since I was eighteen, now they have a bedside vigil of indeterminate length. Thankfully, in the digital age, I’m kept informed daily – sometimes more often – via text, email, and long telephone conversations as we try to make sense of this time in our lives.

When a group of friends of many years face the disintegration of their circle, it’s like facing the imminent death of a sibling – sometimes worse because most families grow apart, develop separate lives whereas friends can be constant and consistent. My Mother, who was fond of quoting her own father used to say: God gives you your relatives, but thank God he allows you to choose your friends. 

And so, living in a surreal time-zone, waiting for the inevitable telephone call, I’m frozen with indecision, grieving the loss of Margaret already and yet nurturing a minuscule fragment of hope that somehow a miracle will happen and the last six weeks have been a bad dream. It is déjà vu – my friend Caroline’s death 2001,  husband John’s death 2002,  Dad’s death 2005 and Mum’s death 2009 – with myriad funerals in between of friends and distant relatives. I seek solace by the sea and visit Stony Point where we’ve scattered John’s ashes and where, when it’s time,  I too will feed the fishes, travel with the tides… a quiet, serene place of solitude that never seems to change…

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I often visit Mordialloc foreshore and find an early morning or evening walk the most beneficial – an unsurpassed meditation time.

Mordialloc Beach 2013

Mairi Neil

The day is calm. Tranquil. A great-to-be-alive day. Eucalypts and pine trees compete with salty air and the whiff of abandoned seaweed.
The blue-green sea a mirror for fluffy clouds of whipped cream. Dainty dollops on a pale blue plate. Gulls sit or glide atop this glassy sea. Bathed in white sunlight I imagine I too drift and dream.
In the distance palm tree fronds tremble casting lacy shadows on hot sand. The clink of moorings and creak of masts drifts from the Creek and a sudden gust of wind whips sand stinging legs and face. Airborne seagulls now screeching origami kites.
A dark veil unfurls from the horizon shattering the grey-green mirror and my peaceful contemplation. Waves lap and soap around my feet as I retreat to the shelter of eucalypts and pine, the taste of salt now bittersweet.

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At this point in time, creativity is at an all-time low.  I’m so grateful I have students and classes to encourage and inspire me to shake out of the doldrums.  Whether it is memories stirred or the confronting reminder that my breast cancer could easily metastasise like Margaret’s, or facing ageing and worrying about unfinished business, or the reminder of past losses and grief – my spirits have been depressed with energy levels just enough to complete necessary tasks – the inner well dry and desolate.

Several years ago, I started teaching memoir and classes to encourage others to record life stories and think about their legacy. In the process, I’ve written thousands of words reflecting on my own life, family history and my parents, along with poems and short stories. This blog is another way of  leaving a legacy for my daughters – writing down thoughts and events, ideas, memories and dreams in essays, short stories, anecdotes and poems – like an online journal, but not just stream of consciousness or venting – more focussed on what I want to express at  a particular time, or about a particular experience.

All the reading I have done about the memoir genre explains it can be about anything personally experienced, or a life event significant enough to want to retell, or it can simply be a snapshot of a moment or a description of a person, place, or thing in your life –  that’s what I tell my students  – and so it is true for me too!

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I hope I can do justice to Margaret’s legacy when the time comes and be privileged to hear what she means to others.  Eventually, the sun will shine inside me and I’ll feel joy because the sun rises each day as Mother Nature reaffirms life each morning.

The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and John Kessler

The personal is political – celebrating International Women’s Day 2015 and the right to be me!

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Yesterday, I marched in the city with my daughter, Anne and a few hundred others. We were a small, eclectic and vocal crowd who patiently listened to several speeches while trying to avoid the burning rays of a sunny Melbourne Sunday. I observed and chatted to several fellow marchers and reflected on my early involvement in the women’s movement, the issues that were in the forefront then in the 1970s and those still on the agenda today. It was lovely to share the afternoon with my daughter and know that both my girls are active feminists, not only caring about gender equality, but prepared to act and speak out, loud and proud when the occasion demands.

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The term ‘International Women’s Day’ is important because although many western women in the ‘first’ world appear to be doing very well thank you, there are millions of girls and women in other countries we refer to as ‘third’ world, who are born into slavery, denied education, beaten, raped, and basically controlled, manipulated and abused from the minute they are born till the day they die.

Yesterday, former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard mentioned the denial of education to 31 million girls as an example. In a previous post I’ve highlighted the epidemic proportions of family violence and its impact on women and children. I’ve also written about another shameful scourge –  the suffering of women and children in detention, their only ‘crime’ seeking asylum in Australia thinking we are a haven from oppression.

There were several signs pointing out that we still have a long way to go even in Australia if we want true gender equality. There are always politicians prepared to deny what was fought for: abortion has been decriminalised in Victoria for several years – let’s hope it remains a woman’s right to control her body. We are still struggling for equal pay for equal work, and for occupations seen as ‘mainly female’ to be as highly regarded and paid as well as those occupations deemed traditionally for males.

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A woman who influenced me greatly in the 70s was Peggy Seeger and her rendition of  Gonna be An Engineer clever poetry (read the transcript), like most memorable songs. I was fortunate to meet Peggy and Ewan MacColl when they were brought out to Australia to tour by the AMWU in 1976, when John Halfpenny was Victorian Secretary and still cherish the double cassette produced on their tour. I remember mercurial Melbourne  played its part that night too with a summer storm. The room at Trades Hall steamed as we dried out, but our enthusiasm wasn’t dampened. To the patter of heavy rain,  we stamped our feet, clapped and roared to the folk duo’s amazing repertoire. A wonderful memory of the joyous feeling to be among like-minded thinkers!

When I went to university in Canberra in 1971 I joined Women’s Liberation. We met at Elizabeth Reid‘s house. This amazing woman became Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s advisor when the Labor Government was elected in 1972. A watershed appointment and one many people didn’t like. It was the beginning of women being appointed to positions of power – and so began the culture of vilification of these same women.  Australia’s ‘tall poppy syndrome‘ ensures the media still goes into a frenzy when it denigrates women in power. (eg. the treatment of our first female Prime Minister,  Julia Gillard)

It would take decades before the media could handle issues concerning women with maturity, about the same time it took for Reid’s significance to sink in.

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Liz and my bosom buddy for much of my time at university, author Drusilla Modjeska, were great influences on my philosophical and intellectual development. Thy gave me courage,  helped me find my voice and because of Drusilla, I began to believe I could be a writer – a dream and career still a work in progress!

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The early marches in Melbourne for International Women’s Day focused on equal pay for equal work and health issues such as abortion and contraception. A lot of young women were activists, and the 70s saw the inclusion of the Gay Liberation Movement too – of course Australia is still struggling with the idea of equal marriage rights for all. We were noisy and I can remember lots of chanting and singing. We rewrote the words to many traditional songs with our own flavour and enjoyed the dulcet tones of musicians like Judy Small, another influential woman I admire. Judy’s Mothers, Daughters, Wives, one of the best anti-war songs around, but also an amazing social commentary, as is my favourite one of Judy’s and so relevant now as we suffer the ‘war against terror’ scaremongering and demonisation of refugees – You Don’t Speak for Me. 

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my protest uniform

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I am still active in the Union of Australian Women and equality before the law, at work and in our education and health system is very much on our agenda. Many people may not know about the Human Rights Law Centre, established in 2006 with half a dozen lawyers who care about humanity. It is an NGO relying on private donations from philanthropic organisations, other law firms and private individuals with a small contribution from government. Their independence from government important because they work on making the government fulfil obligations under the various national and international laws.

There is an education component to their work as well as litigation, and they have publications plus a website with an amazing resources page. The copies of submissions under ‘Women’ include equal opportunity, decriminalization of abortion, family violence, and equal pay.

The Centre does a lot of work on refugee rights responding to government policies. They have also tackled Gay and Lesbian rights from the perspective of equality under the law. They do work for Amnesty International to improve Australia’s foreign policy. They monitor police powers and investigative techniques, keep abreast of the UN and other peak bodies and Australia’s compliance regarding international obligations and women’s rights, especially the right to be free from violence.

In September 2013, at a UAW Southern Branch meeting, Emily Christie, a human rights lawyer gave an eloquent and passionate rundown on her work, in discrimination law – particularly discrimination on the basis of disability, sex identity, and sexuality. Emily works for DLA Piper Australia, a global law firm, and is part of a pro bono team handling cases with a public interest aspect,  on behalf of people who may be too poor to go through normal legal channels. Emily’s work and experience covers a broad scope, she chose two areas to share with us:

  1. The story of Norrie who does not identify as male or female and the fact that under the law ‘she’ can’t be protected because there are no appropriate words to describe or protect someone of non-specific sex in current gender and identity laws.
  2. Changes in the law at national and international level that push boundaries and close gaps in women’s rights, particularly regarding abortion and domestic violence.

Norrie was born male in Scotland with gender dysphoria. Convinced to take ‘the cure’ of sexual reassignment surgery Norrie couldn’t identify as female either. Under Australian law after surgery a birth certificate can be changed, but you couldn’t choose to be intersex – or non- specific gender. Our society has definite gender boundaries. Norrie and others have basic problems like what toilet to use, who to marry and what to put on official forms – especially since so many insist on knowing your gender even if it should be irrelevant.

Norrie applied to have non specific on ‘her’ birth certificate, which the Registrar had no problem with, but that decision made the news and the Attorney General intervened to insist male or female must be stated. Norrie took the decision to VCAT. Sex is not defined in any legislation – it is just taken as read and although losing the first appeal, Norrie won in the Court of Appeal. Unfortunately, this judgement was also appealed. The High Court case 2014 was successful, mainly because there is a groundswell of supporters for sexual diversity.There was also a change to Federal Sex Discrimination Act on August 1, 2013 to make discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status unlawful.

The law has to define sex by what is happening in the real world, with categories broader than male or female. Norrie’s case records the first time judges recognised that people may not fit into a predetermined understanding of what they should be. The case is important because once people are recognised in law they can be protected and services provided for them. Gay, transgender, and intersex people now have protection at federal level. There are new guidelines created for official forms like Passports, Centrelink, Medicare whereby a person’s sex is only asked if necessary, and there has to be the option of “X” (intersex) as well as male or female. Emily noted that the enrolment to vote forms have already been altered to reflect the updated law.

Australia is one of the first Western governments to take this step in law but cultural awareness will take some time. Interestingly, India and the Philippines have a cultural history of acknowledging an intersex community – with 6 million people in India identifying as intersex. Internationally Australia is ahead in laws pertaining to sex and gender diversity but not in marriage equality. Unfortunately because the section in UN Human Rights Charter still delineates marriage between male and female it is interpreted as being against same sex marriage making it difficult to cite a UN convention in any legal argument. However, the UN Committee on Human Rights regarding sexuality may be conservative, but at least they are doing better on women’s rights.

International law has never been good on women’s rights, especially in the private sphere. The laws written by men focussed on the public sphere with issues such as domestic violence and abortion unaddressed. This is changing with private issues made a public responsibility mirroring changes on the domestic front in Australia.

The UN has legislation about torture and this has been used to change the rhetoric on domestic violence enabling the use of international law to protect women at home. The UN recognises that gender discrimination and violence against women is systemic. Many governments are now forced to address these issues like war crimes. A recent case in South America used international law to procure an abortion for a sick woman citing the denial would be tantamount to torture and cruel and inhumane.

However because Australia does not have a Bill of Rights to protect human rights  (one of the few western countries who don’t), individuals can’t sue the government if they don’t fulfil their obligations.The best tool we have for change is Federal Government intervention when the States do something wrong: e.g. Tasmania was the last state to decriminalise homosexuality. A man took the issue to the UN and because the Federal Government makes laws to deal with external issues and obligations under international treaties they can pull the states into line and make state laws invalid.

However, if the Federal government chooses to ignore international conventions there are no real consequences except loss of reputation and being scolded before a review board as we have seen recently with the  report into children in detention.

I’m glad we celebrate International Women’s Day and I know we have a long way to go, especially changing cultural mindsets and challenging ingrained prejudices. However, tackling the injustices in the world and society is important – and speaking out for those still voiceless an imperative for those of us who live in a free society.

Last night, the ache in my ageing bones after traipsing through the city was definitely worth it! The right to protest and march in the street one I’ve enjoyed for a long time and to some people synonymous with who I am.   I hope I can still march on IWD next year, and the year after, and many years to come!

My desire a bit like the dream to be a writer. Each day I’ll face the blank page and start writing, editing and rewriting and hope people read my words…

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Reality versus Dreams of the Writing Life: Choosing Fulfilment over Finances!

The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.

Kurt Vonnegut

In March 1995, five people sat around a laminated table at the Mordialloc Neighbourhood House one Wednesday night at 8pm. We put in a $1.00 each towards the nominal rent, and formed the Mordialloc Writers’ Group. Those first attendees included a singer songwriter, a writer illustrator, a poet, and two short story writers who also presented a community radio writing show. I had arranged the evening and took on the grand title (and job) of coordinator/facilitator, helped tremendously for the first three years by Noelle Franklin who was one of the presenters of the Moorabbin FM writing show Write Now.

The writing show still exists (with a different presenter) as does the writing group, but I’m the only original remaining with the Mordialloc Writers’ Group, although there are several longtime members and others who return for periods to reacquaint with us, like the proverbial boomerang. Such is the writer’s life.

Over the years, the group has remained active because of the commitment and support of people like Glenice Whitting, Maureen Hanna, Barbara Davies, Coral Waight and Steve Davis, not only attending workshop nights, but also hosting Readings by The Bay, our monthly get-togethers to encourage and share writing with the community. I may be the public face and contact person, but Mordialloc Writers is an eclectic, vibrant, active, talented group being renewed all the time by others interested in creative writing!

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The group, like the moon, has waxed and waned – some workshop nights 18-20 people crammed around the table with barely time for discussing any piece of writing in depth. Other nights 3-4 writers talked into the night deconstructing each other’s work, sharing personal joys and woes,  solving the problems of family and the world!

Writing may or may not be your salvation; it might or might not be your destiny. But that does not matter. What matters right now are the words, one after another. Find the next word. Write it down.

Neil Gaiman

Over the years we published eight anthologies with the work of over 66 writers  included  – many for the first time. Some went on to publish poetry books and novels, blogs, win writing competitions and awards, write family history and memoir. Some established other writing and poetry groups in nearby and far away suburbs and countries, and participated in successful events and festivals.

This year, we celebrate our 20th Anniversary and are currently compiling an anthology of personal essays around the theme of – Kingston My City.  Some of us will be moving out of the comfort zone of particular genres we’ve grown to love, there will be first time published writers, regular attendees who consider Mordi Writers and writing as part of their life routine( Ilura prizewinner, Glenice Whitting) , and there will be invited guest writers from the Group’s past: Lisa Hill of AnZ Litlovers blog fame, Sue Parritt, Dorothy PlummerHelen Merrick-Andrews, Dom Heraclides, Mari Iwa and Jillian Rhodes.

The title and focus of the book a small tribute to the community and councils that have supported our growth and development over the years.

We’ll also be travelling into unknown territory –publishing an E-book as well as the traditional printed copy. (As the publisher for the last four books this is another steep learning curve embracing the digital age!) At the moment, the book is shaping up to be a great read as fellow writer Glenice Whitting and I edit the submissions. Variety is definitely the spice of life and we all have different perspectives of living in Kingston or have interacted with the city’s services and people in different stages of our lives.

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Watch this space for updates:)

Sun Facts and Why Australia, the Sunburnt Country may Not like You!

I love a sunburnt country, A land of sweeping plains, Of ragged mountain ranges, Of droughts and flooding rains, I love her far horizons, I love her jewel-sea, Her beauty and her terror – The wide brown land for me!

My Country: Dorothea Mackellar (1885-1968) and recited by the poet on Youtube

I have what is considered ‘a Celtic pelt’ and because of this ancestry and genetics I’m categorised as high risk for skin cancer. In fact I’ve already had one brush in 1983, which resulted in two Squamous Cell carcinomas being removed.

I had just turned 30, had an overseas trip planned with my soon-to-be-husband John, so took the diagnosis in my stride – partly because it all happened so quickly and unexpectedly. My efficient GP, Dr M, now retired,  sent me to a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, Mr K whose excellent ministrations left almost undetectable scars.

In fact, what I remember most about the experience, apart from relief it wasn’t melanoma, was the follow-up visit, to give the ‘all-clear’. The surgeon showed me a photographic album of reconstructed noses. He offered a discount saying, ‘I can make you beautiful, you don’t have to go through life looking like that…’

Well, what could I say?

I refused his offer, of course, John and I being perfectly happy with the nose I’d been born with, plus even with a discount, the price would have meant cancelling our forthcoming overseas trip – and that wasn’t going to happen – I’d had enough surgery and pain.

However, like all writers I mined the experience and entered one of the first writing competitions held by the Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria, in 1995 and my short prose, Beauty is More than Skin Deep, was chosen to be displayed at the Daffodil Day Art & Literary Exhibition, Melbourne Central. I met the late Bryce Courtney who was one of the judges and an Australian author at the height of his popularity.

Short story displayed at Melbourne Central Shopping Centre

The competition was a good exercise in writing to a word count and to a theme, but it also made me more aware of skin cancer and the need for prevention. When John and my daughters accompanied me to the launch I didn’t realise how confronting the day would be – the poems and stories had been printed on giant posters and decorated the walls of a very busy section of the shopping centre. Talk about putting your work out there!

The late Bryce Courtney

In 1998 I had two more stories published under the auspices of the Anti-Cancer council’s Daffodil Day Awards, but this time in a book, Together Alone – slightly less confronting than having posters on a wall.

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Today I nurse a throbbing toe and await the result of a biopsy because I’ve had cause to revisit my skin cancer experience. I’ve received exceptional care from  the Peninsula Skin Cancer Centre who are being on the safe side, but it’s a timely reminder of the following facts:

  • 2 in 3 Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70
  • Skin cancers account for about 80% of all new cancers diagnosed each year in Australia.
  • Each year, Australians are 4 times more likely to develop a common skin cancer than any other form of cancer.
  • Over 750,000 Australians are treated for skin cancer each year – that’s over 2,000 people every day.
  • Around 2,000 Australians die from skin cancer each year

As the Sunsmart campaign insists “Australia has some of the highest UV levels in the world: in fact UV radiation is strong enough to cause sunburn in just 11 minutes on a fine January day.”

They advise, “In Victoria, the average UV is above 3 from September until April and sun protection is required during the daily sun protection times. The average UV is below 3 from May until August, so sun protection is not required.

It is common for people in my age group to worry about skin cancer, a lifetime of sun exposure and some unwise and risky behaviour in our youth guarantees many of us will have the unglamorously named barnacles, or sun spots, freckles and moles.

Fortunately, my brush with skin cancer made me more aware as a mother, and my children had the sun smart message reinforced by the popular Slip Slop Slap Campaign, which this year celebrates 35 years protecting Victorians. The girls never played outside without sunscreen, a hat, and their shoulders covered.

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This video was made on the 30th anniversary and brings back many memories of one of the most effective public health advertising campaigns in history. Armed with statistics and personal experience I campaigned for my daughters safety when they went to kindergarten and school. Long after my children left, the local kindergarten still distributed copies of an article I wrote on the importance of being sun smart. When my children went to school, I wrote letters and campaigned for compulsory hats, altered sports timetables and changed lunch breaks. Words can be powerful and make a difference!

The Cancer Council of Australia encourages people to become familiar with their skin, including skin not normally exposed to the sun.  Please consult a doctor if , like me,you notice any change in shape, colour or size of a lesion, or the development of a new lesion.

My latest escapade may prove to be a keloid scar injury or  a wart, or something more sinister, but I am being pro-active. I may also write creatively about it!

A Pool Of Memories

All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

This week, I asked my students to write about summer and gave them a selection of  writing prompts. As I reflect on the lesson I remembered various summer activities and memories from childhood.

A few years ago some beancounter or councillor in the City of Croydon looked at the prime land taken up by Croydon Memorial Pool and decided rather than maintain the pool, it could be sold. The public outcry that followed the suggestion, retained the pool, which was built as a memorial to honour those who fought in the Second World War. I have an emotional attachment to Croydon swimming pool, a place that contributed to an idyllic childhood, although,  now living in Mordialloc and in close proximity to a beautiful beach,

Dad’s sister, Chrissie, met us at Station Pier when we arrived in Australia, on December 16th 1962, and the first piece of information she imparted to excite us about our future home was its closeness to a newly opened olympic-sized swimming pool. Our journey from Scotland, on the month long voyage aboard SS Orion, gave me  my first experience of a swimming pool and along with three siblings, I attempted to swim. Accustomed to the joys of water play and poolside fun, the thought of continuing sessions on land did make our new home more inviting. (I suspect Aunt Chrissie realised this!)

Croydon, eighteen miles from Melbourne GPO and even further from the nearest beach, was considered ‘the sticks’  and for those living in the outer suburbs, summers were long and hot. A public swimming pool, therefore, considered a tremendous community asset for hundreds of children to spend hundreds of hours creating carefree memories. The egalitarian pool open to everyone regardless of income or generation. Days spent there helped us enjoy adjusting to our new country and to cope with the culture shock of a sweltering Christmas, instead of sleet and snow.

Working class people rarely went on vacation, so the Croydon pool a wonderful alternative to driving the hour or two to the closest coastal beaches of Seaford and Edithvale. No freeways then.

That first summer, we attended the pool almost daily establishing a pattern of regular visits that continued for several years. Each day seemed like a holiday, especially with the crowd that our family and friends made. Fortunately, the entry cost minimal – there may even have been a discount for family groups, I can’t remember. I know we shared a locker, which caused ructions at times if people wanted to go home early and the keeper of the key resented getting out of the water! This sign should probably have been put at the entrance of the pool!

images-1Ignorant of skin cancer people lay smeared with coconut or baby oil, sun baking on the grass or lying on the concrete surrounds. There were few trees in the early days with those planted still to mature. I recall many sleepless nights with painful burning skin despite mum’s home remedies of vinegar or cold tea compresses. No sunscreen then either.

A few exhausting hours playing at the pool made a walk home in the heat unattractive. We planned visits to coincide with Dad’s shifts or so someone else’s parents could pick us up. With no seat belt rules and few cars on the road it was amazing how many kids could be crushed into Austin A30s, Morris Minors, Ford Consuls, FJ Holdens or Dad’s Vanguard Utility. We still arrived home hot and sweaty with the cooling benefits of the pool undone, but not as tired if we’d walked!

Mum and Dad were sticklers for ‘no swimming for an-hour after you’ve eaten.’ My father’s older brother, John drowned in Corpus Christi in 1927, while serving at sea as an engineer. It was thought he took cramps because he went swimming too soon after a meal. In addition, my father lived with a personal memory of a traumatic incident from his childhood when he nearly drowned. Therefore, our time at the pool regulated and rules enforced without compromise. Negotiated longer periods for swimming meant going mid morning and leaving mid afternoon. We may miss out catching up with chums and went hungry until we returned home; the only sustenance being a frozen Sunny Boy, or Choc Wedge, bought with locker refund money.

Our melting frozen treats held between soft wrinkled fingers, made us fly magnets. We’d sit on the kerb outside the pool waiting to be picked up, competing to see who could kill the most flies with our thongs. Mao Zedong would have been proud of us. Under his ‘four harms’ strategy 1958-62 he urged citizens to kill flies, mosquitoes, rats and sparrows, the four pests that damaged crops. The great campaign almost eliminated the common housefly as the Chinese swatted with zest. We certainly shared their enthusiasm and aimed a death blow at every fly or mosquito we came across. Dad, who refused to wear thongs, laughed at us, saying, ‘ killing flies the best use for those stupid flip flops!’

Days at the pool hold magical memories: meeting friends at weekends or holidays, mixing with kids from different schools, swimming, diving, playing games and showing off our healthy physiques. Not everyone had the telephone connected, not everyone had a family car, opportunities for meeting and talking outside school hours were few. Many romances started – and ended –  at the pool. The era of the ‘itsy bitsy teeny weeny’ bikini upon us, although bathers in the 1960s didn’t reveal the flesh of later fashions. However, Speedos were at the height of their popularity and once wet never left much to the imagination.

I made my one and only dive from a diving board at Croydon Pool—the small diving board, of course. I lacked the courage to do anything but jump off the big diving board and I only did that once. Through adult eyes, how small those boards look, yet the climb to the top of the ladder and the panic of spluttering chlorinated spume after hitting the water and scrabbling to return to the surface, still haunts me. As does the sting of bellyflops.

Herald certificate 1964

I passed the Herald Learn To Swim Certificate by swimming the 25 yards across the Croydon Pool and even managed to get my Junior Certificate after doing a rather pathetic dive in old clothes from the pool’s edge. Never good enough to be in the school swimming sports, I do remember  sitting on the concrete steps cheering my brothers until hoarse. At one stage there were five McInnes’s at Croydon High School and we were all in Surrey House so I would have been waving yellow streamers. The houses at school named after English counties: Surrey (yellow), Ashburton(red), Guildford (green) and Kent (blue), a veritable chanting rainbow around the pool.

Not a water baby, I preferred the gentle introduction of a dip in the toddler’s pool where the water warmed quickly on a hot day compared to being pushed into the freezing water of the big pool, or splashed unmercifully if you tried to ease gradually down the steps at the side. On some days, Croydon pool so crowded, that the only safe way to enter the water was sliding into the pool from  the edges. Many times an accidental knock left me gasping because I landed in the pool before I was psychologically prepared for the water temperature.

The shallow end of the pool the spot for one of our favourite games – diving for pennies. If we were broke someone would unpin their locker key from their togs and we’d dive for that. We never seemed to tire of playing tag or challenging each other to underwater tricks or races across the pool. The sensation and taste of chlorinated water bubbling up my nostrils still vivid as we dared to venture into deeper water.  I can recall the ache in lungs as I struggled to compete laps rather than be stranded treading water somewhere in the pool out of my depth. The sandpaper roughness of the sides of the pool and the pain of scraped skin another not so pleasant memory.

Everyone skylarked, even though attendants seemed to really have eyes in the back of their heads and order ‘naughty’ children to take ‘time out’ or ‘be warned’. When bikinis became fashionable there was more than one embarrassing moment as girls were ‘dacked’, or had their tops untied. Those dolphins who could swim underwater for an amazing length of time played pranks that sent excited squeals and gales of laughter reverberating across the pool, especially if they forced their way through your legs when least expected.

Several generations learnt to swim, socialise and have fun at the Croydon Pool. Fifty years from my childhood and many homes have backyard pools, multiple family cars and the time and money to travel to beaches or resorts. Croydon is no longer considered ‘the sticks,’ but has been absorbed into Melbourne’s urban sprawl.

However, I hope others value their memories of days spent at Croydon Pool and ensure it’s always a community asset. Today,  schoolchildren, pensioner aerobic classes, toddlers having their first taste of water outside the bathtub, and anyone else  cooling off or exercising must be happy the pool is there.

Aaah, summer – that long anticipated stretch of lazy, lingering days, free of responsibility and rife with possibility. It’s a time to hunt for insects, master handstands, practice swimming strokes, conquer trees, explore nooks and crannies, and make new friends.

Darrell Hammond.