When counting blessings, friends must be high on your list!

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Coco Chanel apparently said, ‘Nature gives you the face you have at 20. Life shapes the face you have at 30, but at 50 you get the face you deserve.’

If we sulked or made a funny or unpleasant face, my Mum used to warn, ‘the wind will change and you’ll stay like that.’ Both my parents championed smiling and politeness and modelled being friendly and pleasant.

‘You use more muscles to frown than smile’ is always a good comeback when someone looks glum, but there is no scientific proof behind the old saying!

“Scientists have studied the muscles needed for both facial expressions, and to do a small smile generally uses 10 muscles; a small frown uses 6. On average, a smile uses 12 and a frown 11. However, since humans tend to smile a lot, these muscles are stronger. A frown may be slightly more effort to produce just because we aren’t as used to using these muscles.”

Science Made Simple 

However, scientific proof or not, I’m sticking with smiles, politeness and kindness to people because I feel better when I do and following another piece of Mum advice, ‘civility costs nothing.’

My face – wrinkles et al – reflects life hasn’t been easy but there are plenty of laughter lines and when I meet up with friends there are usually smiles and laughter aplenty and I try and catch up with as many as possible during term breaks.

Spring In Melbourne Town 2018
(A hybrid Haibun)
Mairi Neil

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outside where U3A meet

Today, I won’t be grey and miserable
and definitely ‘not over the hill’
I’m meeting a friend of many years
several hours we’ll happily fill.

On way to the train
U3A club gathering
‘Nice day for an outing!’

Dressed for mercurial Melbourne
sturdy shoes and light jackets,
sunglasses, lanyards with names,
backpacks and lunch in packets.

‘Join us?’ their chorus
prepared for fun and adventure
my kind of ageing…

On the train beside a Metro worker
who’s heading for Glenhuntly Station
we chat about insecure work and gender
driving a train once her inclination.

I’m on the bus now
Meet you under the clocks
C u soon’

A confirmation text received
we’ve embraced the digital age
but I open a book of poetry –
I prefer words written on the page.

Train stops Platform 10
30 steps to reach the street
ever mindful of heart health

Food court wafts hot chips, coffee and cake
September’s Showtime and school hols
Flinders station’s abuzz with children
plus seagull, sparrow and pigeon trolls.

Myki tapped lightly
eyes seek a waiting friend
welcome smiles and hug

Age hasn’t happened all at once
however, we stroll not stride, to NGV
with hours to enjoy art and beauty
top priorities a pee and a cup of tea!

A young girl walks by
her straw hat embroidered –
the word – ‘paradise

Indeed! Melbourne – the world’s most liveable city.

Old friends are gold

Uma and I go back forty years BC (before children) and have encountered storms and defeats; sunny days and triumphs. Recently, retired from full-time work Uma is recovering from a serious back operation. I’m a few years older, almost retired from part-time work – four months to go – but who is counting!

For a just celebrated 61st birthday, Uma received membership to the NGV and as we walked from Flinders Street Station, she extolled the advantages and virtues of access to talks, special events, behind the scene views, plus a membership lounge – our first stop for a complimentary cuppa.

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The famous glass ceiling at NGV

I love the NGV too – it is celebrating 50 years this year and I can remember it being built. In fact, I can remember the obligatory school excursion where you got to lie on the floor and stare up at the magnificent and unusual leadlight glass ceiling.

There are always several special exhibitions at the NGV, plus their permanent collection. Uma’s input and knowledge from attending member lectures added to the richness of the day as we wandered through galleries discussing exhibits.

A recent talk about Nick Cave’s work: Sound Suit made her think differently about the pieces and how we perceive each other.

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Nick Cave makes sculptures that you can wear. These outfits cover the body and remove all traces of the wearer’s identity. When you are wearing a Soundsuit, no one can tell whether you are rich or poor, black or white, male or female…he created his Soundsuit series in an attempt to process his trauma associated with the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

…wearable sculptures act as symbols of endurance and a form of protection by obscuring all signs of the wearer’s race, gender, age, sexual identification and class…

made from everyday materials sourced largely from flea markets, including dyed human hair, plastic buttons, beads and feathers…joyous and spectacular…rattle and resonate when worn in performance.

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Both Uma and I were busy mums in 1992, with our firstborns leaving Prep and our second children preparing for playgroup and three-year-old kindergarten. International events reported via radio or television and often delayed by hours but the 1992 LA riots unforgettable because at the same time Australia was facing the reality of the Stolen Generation stories and alarming statistics of Aboriginal deaths in custody.

I expressed my anger and fears at Readings By The Bay, the monthly poetry and story readings held by Mordialloc Writers’ Group:

Our Burning Shame
Mairi Neil 1992

Rodney King – who gave you that name?
A “king’ in a black skin…
some will see the irony
or is it okay as a surname.
Is your destiny entwined
with that other dreamer?

The world watched in horror
as they beat you to the ground…
on the ground
into the ground.
The gang of four with official batons
grasped tightly, wielded as if warriors
beating your head
beating your body
beating your legs

Pounding, pounding, pounding…
a steady funeral dirge
burying the myth racial equality is accepted

Middle-class liberals gasped
horrified at the naked truth
other victims sighed with relief
the truth at last revealed.
Those with the power to change
shrugged away the fuss

A picture is worth a thousand words
a video worth a thousand affidavits
television news beamed across the nation
worth a thousand protests
an opportune political decision
worth a thousand votes

Time dimmed the anger and horror
even brutes deserve a trial…
innocent until proven guilty
but will Nuremberg be revisited?
We waited for the sentence
believing we knew the judgement

A jury without black faces
proved society is controlled
by red necks preferring white liars
who can live with red faces

Now Los Angeles burns –
along with our shame
those with real power
remain unchanged
Cosmetics mask ugly faces
waspish capitalists sting
again and again and again…

Shocked Australians are horrified
yet reality reveals our guilt
smugness shattered
when black deaths in custody
inspire jokes

Our custodians of the law
don’t need lessons in brutality
we watched the scenes in LA
but closed minds
can be switched off
just like television sets

Will our cities burn
today…
tomorrow…
next week…

Now, of course, the time delay is only seconds. The 24Hour media cycle (circus?) barely gives us time to digest, never mind process, events. There are social media platforms and mobile devices offering no escape or relief, and ironically, the reality of ‘fake’ news.

After almost three decades I have to pause, reflect, and ask how much have attitudes and behaviour changed?

Will the wider dissemination of news and events via the Internet make people seek further knowledge, see a different perspective, consider a change in behaviour or attitude – or will it just cement their own truth and beliefs?

Across the room beside Sound Suits is Amelia Falling by Hank Willis Thomas, a most effective photographic image on a mirror and depicting Alabama 1965 – I remember that too almost three decades before the LA Riots! :

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Amelia Falling is derived from an archival photograph taken by photojournalist Spider Martin during the Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama in 1965…

… civil rights activist Amelia Boynton Robinson being carried by fellow marchers after having been gassed and beaten by State Troopers during what was intended to be a peaceful protest…

Willis Thomas states, ‘In a lot of my work I ask the viewer not to be passive but to actually think about active participation’.

 

What artwork will the Trump era produce – chronicle our despair, facilitate change or confront our shame?

Trumpeting Limericks To Let Off Steam

Mairi Neil, 2016

There once was a candidate Trump
elected by those who took hump
at moneyed elites
according to tweets
by Trump’s collective misogynist clump

He blew bigots up like a bicycle pump
‘deplorables’ swelled to a poisonous lump
forget about facts
diplomacy or tact
winning is all that matters to Trump

As the President-elect Donald Trump
sneered at women considered plump
his unleashed tongue
grotesque insults flung
Trump’s misogyny a cancerous lump

His presidency corrupt at the core
means the United States no more
anger and hate
an uncertain fate
Trump’s only about settling a score

He campaigned with deceit and lies
winning the penultimate prize
of course, he’s a fool
others actually rule
will the majority avert their eyes?

From Mexican artist Joaquin Segura we have Exercises on selective mutism, 2012:

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In this piece the artist has recovered a found object – a canvas banner discarded in the aftermath of a protest in Mexico City – and transformed it into a minimalist sculpture by applying layers of white paint to its surface. 

The attempt to cover up (literally ‘whitewash’) the banner’s political message is key to the work’s meaning… about efforts to silence, and render invisible, dissent – through omission, spreading misinformation and erasure – and a questioning of conceptual art’s potential to make political claims or to challenge authority.

I love writing Found Poetry and the last lesson for the term in my Writing Creatively class was exploring Found Poetry by reading a column in the local paper which collates local news snippets from a hundred years ago.

The exercise was challenging but productive and I hope the students polish the variety of poems they wrote.

Art can Confront, Challenge, move us from our Comfort Zone

Several other installations prompted discussions on a host of current media topics and various events we’d lived through.

Baby boomers have survived tumultuous, exciting times and have adapted to incredible change, especially the rise of the digital world. I’m glad there is still support for art you can touch, walk around, relate to and experience in real time, not just on screen.

Melbourne is rich with events to attend, particularly during holiday times and I never tire of the trip to the city – as a teacher of creative writing, particularly Life Stories & Legacies, cultural experiences and exhibitions offer a mine of information and material for lessons and ideas to write about, plus triggers for personal memories.

When we write about our past, it’s easy to look at memories as if through a fixed lens. Events and people, including self, coldly observed – especially childhood – embarrassments, failings, mistakes, sometimes enlarged or erased with hindsight, successes perhaps forgotten or if unrecognised at the time, now embellished. The telescope pointed at childhood fixed, and often others not consulted, so the memory, reliable or otherwise, is our own.

The immediate past and middle years, early adulthood onwards not so clear to categorise or to talk about – marriage, parenthood, working life – may still have ongoing repercussions – more likely family, friends and fellow travellers, still alive even if not active participants in your life.

The memories may be raw and traumatic and still needing some distance before reflection.

Our childhood distant, but not the experiences of our own children and their effect on our lives still being worked through, as are decisions that may have affected our health:

  • abandoning regular sport or dancing,
  • quitting smoking,
  • alcohol use,
  • prescription medication,
  • middle-aged spread,
  • promotion at work,
  • redundancies,
  • reducing to part-time
  • or casual work,
  • divorce,
  • widowhood,
  • estrangement,
  • de facto relationships,
  • weddings,
  • grandchildren,
  • retirement,
  • relocation…

… so many experiences and turning points to be written freely or honestly, or perhaps censored with ramifications fully understood.

Shared experiences, Interviewing friends, a Memoir Writer’s fodder

At the NGV, along with discussing the contents of the galleries, Uma and I chatted and remembered events of our forty years friendship. We both are the product of the first wave of feminism and both have daughters who we raised accordingly, hoping they would not go through some of the sexism and inequality we faced.

Uma, as a woman of colour, born in Malaysia, a country with a long history and acculturation from British colonialism, recognises she adapted to Australian society with relative ease compared to other migrants but we agree the conversations around #blacklivesmatter and #metoo are relevant to Australia and long overdue.

Proud to be Feminist

“You’ll love the Guerrilla Girls: Portfolio Compleat,” said Uma as she guided me to the next gallery.

Guerrilla Girls exhibition confronts gender inequality particularly in the creative fields, and because myself and both daughters (a filmmaker and a stop-motion animator) work in creative fields, Uma wanted me to see it.

We found ourselves sharing insights about subtle and not so subtle discrimination in a world that unfortunately still sees power wielded by the privileged, and in western society, the privileged are overwhelmingly white and male.

Uma confided that at work in the public service, even when she was in charge, as the manager or ‘boss’, she sat in the front row at conferences or prominent positions at meetings to be seen and she consciously spoke a little louder to be heard – a woman of colour, she had two hurdles to jump!

Guerrilla Girls is a group of anonymous feminist artists and activists who call themselves ‘the conscience of the art world’. Their posters, billboards, books, videos and live lectures use facts, humour and bold visuals to expose sexism and racism in politics, the art world and popular culture.

The collective formed in New York City in 1985 with the mission to bring gender and racial equality into focus within the greater arts community. The members protect their individual identities by wearing gorilla masks during public appearances and by adopting names of deceased female icons such as Edmonia Lewis, Kathe Kollwitz and Frida Kahlo.

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guerrilla girls and homeless

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Uma pointed to number four on the list of advantages of being a woman artist.

‘You have another 20 years,’ she said with a grin…

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Many of the observations were witty and shocking but in today’s depressing political climate ‘stating the bloody obvious.

On the way to visit another special exhibition, we paused at random objects that caught our eye.

From ‘in your face’ feminism, to the eighteenth century, known for its enlightened philosophes (you’ll be forgiven for only knowing the names of the male intellectuals – Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Diderot, Hume…) because women were literally and figuratively trapped – in clothes that limited mobility, a society that denied rights and access to education:

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The fashionable ideal for women in the eighteenth century comprised voluminous dresses, open at the front to reveal matching stomachers and petticoats, tall powdered clouds of hair and pointed buckled shoes. Skirts were widened with hoops or panniers to create an exaggerated hourglass silhouette that emphasised the natural waistline.

This work is known as a robe a la francaise (or sack-back gown), distinguishable by its sack-back of loose pleating and front robings trimmed with lace that conveys the luxury and ostentation of the period.

During the first half of the eighteenth century, fashionable women’s shoes for the upper and middle classes followed a common form. Straight and narrow with a pointed toe and thick-waisted heel, most were made of rich silk fabric and often had decorative trimmings known as passamaneria. This pair features exquisite metal thread bobbin lace made by braiding and twisting lengths of thread, further edged by strips of braid work. The shoes do not buckle but are worn with the latchets overlapping at the front.

How did they function?

I loved Georgette Heyer’s Regency and Georgian novels as a teenager and imagined floating around in muslin and silk dresses – a visit to a museum would have given me a reality check!

The research required for good historical fiction is painstaking and often clothes play a huge part in whether the story is believable, even more so for screenwriting.

I visited so many museums and galleries when I travelled and often looked at the displays and pondered the hours of labour to make the material, dress and shoes.

My aunt was a tailoress and my older sister an amazing seamstress too, she quilts, embroiders and does all manner of creative needlework. I know the effort and time hand sewing takes – mind-boggling!

However, the men and women hunched in candlelight, in rooms with little or no ventilation, sewing these glamorous gowns earned a pittance and history did not even record their names…

A Stitch in Time (a villanelle)
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Day For All Things Domestic?

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Curry 2006 by Subodh Gupta

Uma was thrilled to come across an installation by an Indian born artist Subodh Gupta called Curry.

A wall displaying the various utensils used for cooking reminded Uma of growing up in Malaysia and observing her grandmother cooking. There were certain types of pots and pans, spoons and ladles found in every Indian household.

The tiffin boxes brought back memories for me too.

I first heard about tiffins and saw one when John and I became close friends with a workmate, Peter Cordeux who had been born and brought up in India as part of the British Army community.

Whenever we had parties, Peter and his wife Kathy brought a tiffin box filled with delicious curries and rice, which Peter always jokingly claimed he made.

Peter died in 2008, but his stories of growing up in India, holidaying in Pakistan and Afghanistan, being stationed in the Middle East, fighting in Malaya in 1948 during the “Insurgency,” and then the various jobs he had before migrating to Australia, including operating an ice cream van, introduced a whole new fascinating world.

His funny and serious tales reflected in those tiffin boxes! My girls loved their Uncle Peter and still miss him.

Cultural references resonate within the make-up of this artwork: the use of stainless steel in bowls, plates and cups is synonymous with the modernisation and economic development of India in the twentieth century.

Stainless steel replaced kansa (or bell metal, a brittle bronze featuring a high proportion of tin) in the 1950s and 1960s and came to transform the kitchen and eating utensils used in everyday life in India.

The nod to the multitudes of India is made in this work, where straightforward, comparatively small, individual elements are brought together at such a scale that they transcend their everyday nature.

A Writing Exercise

A common writing exercise for those writing family history or memoir is to look in cupboards and write about objects kept for sentimental reasons or as heirlooms. What is the story behind them? Why is it important to write their legacy?

Or write about and explain the value and attachment of everyday objects.

How were they acquired and is there a significant memory attached, like a birthday or anniversary, a travel story?

A trip to the NGV or the museum may help to trigger memories – this stainless steel display certainly did for me and Uma – as did the final special exhibition we walked through.

a stroll through coffee pots

A Modern Life: Tablewares 1930s – 1980s

If you want to date or explain the provenance of that treasured plate or teapot, visit the NGV before 27 January 2019. You’ll have an enjoyable history lesson too and perhaps discover that valuable piece of crockery a la Antique Roadshow!

The layout of some of the displays to mirror popular designs, I found a bit overwhelming and busy, but certainly stunning and there is a great range of designers. So much detail to produce the humble cup and saucer.

Nowadays, in trendy places, you can be offered a jam jar to drink from and your meal served on a wooden board – or even given disposable crockery and cutlery!

Not so in previous decades.

Following the Second World war, societal changes resulted in the decline of domestic servants and many women going out to work. These changes, along with the growing enthusiasm for a modern lifestyle, prompted manufacturers to produce dining wares that were versatile, easily cared for and able to go from the oven to the table.

Postwar optimism also encouraged the development of new tableware forms that were decorated in bold colours and modernist patterns.

This exhibition explores the growing engagement with modern design by commercial manufacturers charting the application of technical innovations in production and decorative techniques in pursuit of commercially competitive products.

Whilst focusing on ceramics, the exhibition also explores the use of new materials resulting from wartime technological advances including plastic, aluminium and stainless steel.

 

As we walked around the cabinets so many memories were triggered.  Personal family stories, especially memories of our mothers and the impact of their preferences, tastes and habits on our own behaviour shopping, cooking, serving meals.

Memories of setting up house in the 80s – scrounging furniture, crockery and utensils to build a home.

Uma was surprised to hear I’d worked in Johnson’s Pottery in the 70s – in fact all members of my family, apart from my young sister, worked in the Croydon factory, producing Australia’s best-known tableware.

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Mum on the pinning bench, Johnsons Pottery circa 1968

Dad was a kiln man for ten years, my mother worked on the pinning bench preparing the holders for the pottery to be fired, my brothers were kiln boys helping load and unload the kiln cars and clearing up debris, sorting and stacking; my sister worked in the decorating section and I inspected the finished products and also worked in the office during the traditional three-week Christmas shut-down period.

When the factory closed for maintenance, the only person running the office was Mr Stephen Johnson, the boss and owner before Wedgewood bought the company. Teenage me on university holidays was hired to answer the telephone and type letters.

At the time Johnsons negotiated special deals with shops like GJ Coles, David Jones and Myer – they chose a specific design that became their exclusive tableware. I took a call from the famous GJ Coles who was a personal friend of Mr Stephen’s and made afternoon tea for the many suited gentlemen who visited to seal agreements for the coming year. 

I can remember the fuss when Johnsons moved away from traditional whiteware and made their first stoneware as they tried to compete with imports from Japan.

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Japanese stoneware

Technology and mass production has made a lot of household items disposable but access to good quality tableware used to be prized – the first complete set of tableware for many being the traditional wedding present of a dinner set.

Most of my family, myself included, had a dinner set gifted as a wedding present. I have a couple of plates, the remnants of the wedding present to my grandparents and parents. Bone China still cherished and on show in cabinets in the homes of many of my generation.

John’s sister in England has a magnificent collection of blue and white pottery (Delftware) and Royal Albert and Royal Doulton Bone China, but the coffee sets and tableware in this exhibition very much examples of the everyday pieces that may not survive intact if their purpose and design enjoyed rather than displayed!

The bold colours of the 70s and 80s obvious and I’m sure similar pieces can be found in Opportunity shops as my generation declutter.

I don’t think young people today place the same value on many of the possessions older generations had to use a greater percentage of their disposable income to acquire.

I can recall seeing the famous blue Willow pattern for the first time when I came to Australia in 1962. We stayed with a cousin of Dad’s and that was the pattern of her everyday dishes. I fell in love with the oriental scenes, my imagination working overtime as usual because I’ve always had a fascination with China.

In the early days of living in Mordialloc, one of the retail chains had a sale of Blue Willow pattern crockery and I bought a set.

When the girls were young, they too ate their cereal from Willow-patterned bowls. I’ll have to ask them if the scenes had any impact on them – I’m pretty sure their answer will be no.

But perhaps in the future, looking back on their childhood or wandering through an art gallery or museum with a friend…

For Auld Lang Syne

I’m lucky to have several dear friends to enjoy the present and some have shared the immediate and not so distant past – the part of life we often struggle to write about in terms of memory and reflection.

Talking about shared experiences or interviewing friends about a particular event can help with perspective when the desire or in some cases, an urgency to record a life for family members or the general community arises.

There are three classes into which all the women past seventy that ever I knew were to be divided: 1. That dear old soul; 2. That old woman; 3. That old witch. 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

A couple of centuries have passed since Coleridge made that statement about ‘old women’. I’m heading towards seventy and some friends are there already and we’d all agree he got it wrong. 

We may still be fighting for gender equality, and ageism is a reality, but thankfully Coleridge and the other Romantic Poets with patriarchal and sexist views are only around in print and any modern poet expressing similar views will have to contend with shaming by Guerrilla Girls!

I loved my day out with Uma and look forward to catching up with other friends ‘of a certain age’ and intend to enjoy lots of the available activities in October as we celebrate how great it is to be a senior in Melbourne.

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

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

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NAIDOC Week 2018 

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

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

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

Two Sisters – Ngarta And Jukuna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pat Lowe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prologue, two Sisters

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

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

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

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

page 31

Jilji-a sandhill
Jilji – a sandhill

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

page 34

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pat Lowe, contributing author in the introduction to Two Sisters

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

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

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

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

No such contact for the sisters.

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

Bridging The Cultural Divide

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

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

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

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

newspaper article

Epilogue – What About Justice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BECAUSE OF HER , WE CAN!

 

A Visit to Hotel Sorrento A Must For Writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lena took a selfie and included yours truly.

What makes this drama so popular?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

quoted from an Essay by Cate Kennedy 2015

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Taking our seats

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

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

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

And so I am Meg.

Who are you?

Are you Hilary – the broken but coping carer?

Are you Pippa – the feisty but sentimental younger sister?

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

Or Edwin – blindly intelligent and culturally bewildered?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Craven, The Australian

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

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

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

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

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

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Note the ironing board on the left!

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

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

‘Life sucks’, says Pippa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

quoted from an Essay by Cate Kennedy 2015

The Writer’s Craft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stagecraft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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International Women’s Day 2018 Reminds Us Progress Needs To Speed Up

IWD March 8 2017

#Pressforprogress

The City of Kingston again held a morning tea to celebrate International Women’s Day, and in 2018, the catchcry was #pressforprogress with the speakers focusing on gender equality.

The event, held at Kingston City Hall featured the CEO of Domestic Violence Victoria as the keynote speaker but also two young women from local secondary colleges, a student leader from Westall and a Year Nine student from Parkdale Secondary College.

 

fiona McCormack IWD 2018
Fiona McCormack

 

Deputy Mayor Councillor Georgina Oxley opened the official proceedings to introduce Fiona McCormack, CEO of Domestic Violence Victoria, Chair of Vic health, and Co-Chair of the State Government’s Family Violence Committee. Kingston’s Mayor Steve Staikos was also present plus Councillor Rosemary West and several Council staff members.

Councillor Oxley, who is 23 years old shared a little of her journey to show that pressing for progress is not always easy to achieve. Despite it being almost half a century since the first IWD in 1975, when there were amazing steps forward in Australia, many young women’s dreams for change are still crushed.

refusing to shut up sign

She recalled several milestones in her life vindicating that young girls must aspire to whatever they want to be, whether it is a scientist, a CEO, a hairdresser or Prime Minister…

  • at 5 years she was told she couldn’t wear pants to school because she was a girl
  • at 9 years she couldn’t play basketball because that was a boy’s game
  • at 12 years insulted and jeered at for being ‘a feminist’ while riding her bicycle
  • at 15 years she was paid less than her male counterparts as a basketball referee
  • at 17 years she was told science, law, or politics no place for a woman and she should be a hairdresser
  • at 22 years she stood for Kingston Council to challenge a society still dictating to women about what they should do…

IWD March 8 2017

Now she wears pants if she wants, plays basketball, rides her bicycle to the shops, sees feminism as a term of endearment, campaigns for equal pay and is studying Law. She is involved in politics to make a difference. At 23 years she is involved with the working group to reduce family violence in Kingston.

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Equality In The Workplace Two Hundred Years Away?

Women around the globe may have to wait more than two centuries to achieve equality in the workplace, according to new research.

The World Economic Forum, best known for its annual gathering in the Swiss resort of Davos, said it would take 217 years for disparities in the pay and employment opportunities of men and women to end.

The Guardian March 8, 2018

Domestic Violence Australia’s Shame

Fiona McCormack from Domestic Violence Victoria’s address was equally sobering, as she pointed out how important gender equality and pay equity is to stop family violence.

She acknowledged the power of words and language and commended the campaigns #me too, #heforshe: standing together and how the Victorian Government’s Royal Commission into Family Violence was a world first proving the political will to converse and make a change. (click on the link to read the recommendations.)

This IWD, Fiona called for everyone to challenge sexism, but more importantly for men to step up and act now for a significant change. Many male peer relationships emphasise aggression and disrespect towards women.

Male culture can be physical, emotional and economically abusive by threatening, coercive, and dominating behaviour.

against violence pussy hat demo

Family violence predominantly affects women, 34% are in the age group 35-40:

  • in Australia, woman are murdered every week
  • 1 in 3 women have suffered from intimate partner violence
  • 1 in 5 have experienced sexual assault
  • more than half had children in their care witnessing this abuse

We must challenge rigid gender roles and stereotypes, the constructs of masculinity and feminity that encourages domination and control of decision-making within relationships and limits women’s independence.

Research has shown that family violence cannot be explained away by blaming drugs and alcohol. International evidence gathered by the World Bank, World Health Organisation and several other UN organisations reveal it is how social systems are constructed.

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The Personal Is Political

Men who have strong views on their role as men, as the head of the family, treat women and children as their possessions; women are carers and/or sexual beings.

There are a lot of problems caused by definitions of masculinity – look no further than the One Punch incidents, gang violence and aggressive behaviour in nightclubs where young men feel the need to prove how tough they are over and over again. The necessity some men have to not only prove they are heterosexual but take part in homophobic attacks.

  • We have to challenge the norms of what is masculinity until we produce a healthier community for everyone.
  • Society, the courts, and police must not be ambivalent about acceptable behaviour.
  • We must address the imbalance of power between men and women regarding decision-making.
  • Sexist jokes, disrespect, and unequal relationships must be confronted and exposed.

witches sign large

There needs to be a cultural shift especially regarding unequal power and entrenched attitudes.

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We can’t point the finger when we continue to discriminate and treat Aboriginal people the way we do. Sovereignty was never ceded and their economic disempowerment and the higher incidence of being caught in a poverty trap contributes to family violence in their communities. Authorities continue the discrimination and abuse leading to high incarceration rates and deaths in custody.

 

We must actively promote leadership positions for all women and pay equity not just allow conditions to flourish and hope that like the discredited ‘trickle down economics’ theory it will somehow work out in the end.

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The United Nations (UN) convention on the rights of the child (CROC-article, 1990) states:

“It is recognised internationally that a child who is capable of forming their own view has the right to express those views.”

Two Young Women Speak Up

(Apologies if I misspelt the names of the young speakers – they were not listed on the invitation and my hearing is not 100%!)

Danielle is a proud Wurundjeri woman and welcomed us to her country in her own language. She acknowledged coming from a long line of working women including her mother, aunts and granny. She has always expected to work and therefore pay parity very important.

She understands that women with dependent children carry a heavy burden when underpaid. Today, young people must work harder to own things like a house and car, but young women not paid equally have to work harder than male counterparts.

She is grateful for the women who have trailblazed but pleaded for the door to be held open for the next generation to walk through and continue to achieve.

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The gender pay gap can begin in the home if boys and girls are expected to do different chores and boys putting out the rubbish bins considered to deserve more money than girls drying the dishes!  All children’s self-esteem must be built and children encouraged to forget past gender divisions.

IWD march 2017 women belong

Danielle was assured that “a door is well and truly open for you.

Mulyat is a school leader from Westall Secondary College, who began her talk by describing a recent visit to her birth country Bangladesh. She noticed a huge difference between how girls were treated in the city compared to the countryside.

The inequalities she saw in the rural areas and in poor areas of the city were manifestations of poverty and lack of access to education. And although disheartening it also indicated that if some girls in the city can achieve their dreams then change is possible.

However, gender equality and empowerment should not just be for society’s elites!

When she was little her parents bought her kitchen tools and a doll’s house but she always wanted to be an engineer. She saw a different use for the spatula and wanted to experiment with changing the slope of the roof of the doll’s house.

As she grew up, she wondered why young girls stopped playing sports like rugby when they reached a certain age, why teachers always chose boys to carry furniture, why women in positions of power like our first female Prime Minister were called wicked witches and other curse words. She wondered if Hillary had broken the glass ceiling if women could rise…

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The print media and other forms of media headlines pick poor word choices with negative connotations when it comes to women but we must never let anyone make us feel defeated!

We must consider who we are as a collective and don’t be forced to be on the sidelines. Role models are important but the change begins with us. There can be progress to change the future and the echo must go around the world – no barricades and no fences.

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After the inspiring speeches, morning tea was a time to catch up with friends, make new ones, share stories, opinions and plans. I chatted with a woman wearing a lovely knitted Pussy Hat and we reminisced about how quickly women all over the world came together to object to Donald Trump’s obnoxious behaviour and attitude to women.

 

One of Kingston Council’s managers shared his experience of a professional development workshop when he was stunned to hear the fear many women live with daily and how they cope.

The women were asked how safe they felt walking the streets; their responses detailed how they protect themselves.

He remembered being shocked that women accepted the possibility of an attack as a fact of  life and:

  • have their car our house keys in their hand or pocket with the largest key ready as a weapon
  • if walking with earbuds/earphones, or a wearing a beanie, one ear is always exposed so they can listen for footsteps

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Let’s hope that cultural shift that is so necessary is happening and speeds up. Late in the afternoon, I marched through the city on the annual IWD March and again caught up with friends.

Evelyn is 86 years old. We are both longtime members of the Union of Australian Women and have lost count of the number of marches we have joined, the letters we’ve written and the petitions signed demanding gender equality and in particular equal pay.

 

We’ll continue to #pressforprogress!

Hidden Figures – A Review

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I went to a special screening of the film Hidden Figures at the Nova Cinema Sunday night.

Hidden Figures celebrates the African-American women whose calculations enabled the Moon landings, and were then forgotten for 40 years. All profits from the event go to Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equality (URGE), an organisation led by women of colour that fights for reproductive justice in poor, and particularly black, communities. It is on the front line of the struggle against Trump. This is the first of hopefully many events to raise funds for those resisting the right-wing tide.

The event raised $1500 – a great achievement because it was organised at short notice and solely through social media. It didn’t take long to fill the cinema.

NASA’s “Colored Computers”

Hidden Figures is entertaining, empowering, and an all round excellent film. And as most of the advertising hype suggests, it is a story long overdue in the telling, focusing on the journey of three clever women: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.

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I consider myself well-read and I have a double history major, yet I never knew about the “colored computers” as they were referred to by NASA.

Before IBM mainframes took over NASA’s number-crunching duties, the organization’s “computers” wore skirts. While an all-male team of engineers performed the calculations for potential space travel, women mathematicians checked their work, playing a vital role at a moment when the United States was neck-and-neck with (and for a time, running behind) the Soviets in the space race.

In tandem with the space race between America and Russia is the burgeoning and increasingly effective civil rights movement. Clips from real life news broadcasts and newspaper headlines are shown and there is some re-enactment of protests, but the film’s focus is detailing the achievements of three women who were crucial to the success of NASA’s program. They also trail-blazed for not only African-American rights but rights for all women to be treated as intelligent as their male counterparts.

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The Evils of Segregation

The film, set in the early 1960s shows the struggle for desegregation being fought state by state. Like Apartheid South Africa, coloured people are barred, separated, and herded by the predominant white authorities:

  • coloured drinking fountains,
  • coloured waiting rooms,
  • coloured toilets,
  • coloured canteens
  • coloured offices,
  • coloured counters in cafes and shops,
  • and of course coloured seats at the back of the bus despite the brave actions of Rosa Parkes.

This segregation appalling when seen on the screen, especially regarding the effect on innocent children. It’s almost impossible to understand what it must have been like – and it is not that long ago!

Thank goodness we have films like Hidden Figures and Selma to remind us of our common humanity and the evils of bigotry and hate.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

At NASA’s Langley, in the 1940s and 1950s, the women were split into two pools – the East computing unit for white women, and the West computing unit for black women. This segregation a requirement of Virginia state law that continued into the 1960s.

The three African-American women heroes were crusaders for both feminism and civil rights in segregated Virginia and helped put an American into orbit, which ultimately led to America beating Russia in the race to put a man on the moon.

NASA at least recognised the ability of women to work in the field, but in 1962 the “colored computers” were not afforded the same rights or treated with the same respect as their white male colleagues.

The detailing of overt and ingrained racism some of the most powerful and poignant scenes in the movie. Although the focus is always on the contribution and efforts to achieve a successful launch into space, the three women challenge and defeat prejudice and unfairness in the workplace.

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Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, was the first black supervisor in charge of West Computing and is one of the main characters in the film.  One of the first computer programmers when tasks from the engineers came in, she would allocate the work and show her team what they needed to do. Her ingenuity and intelligence and determination to be ahead of the game and yet protect her team, absolutely awesome.

She often goes toe to toe with her white manager, Vivian played to condescending perfection by Kirsten Dunst who has a face you itch to slap. As a woman, Vivian recognises discrimination yet refuses to accept her own attitude and behaviour as racist, not supporting Dorothy’s right to the title and pay of supervisor and saying such lines as:

“Y’all should be thankful you have jobs at all”

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Katherine Johnson played in the film by Taraji P. Henson, was a brilliant geometry expert who worked as a human computer – a person who computes – she was a child prodigy and calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space.

In the film, there is also a scene where astronaut John Glenn asks for Katherine to check the calculations for returning safely to earth before he gets into the spacecraft.

NASA’s chief historian, Bill Barry, explains that the film, which has been nominated for a slew of awards, depicts many real events from their lives. “One thing we’re frequently asked,” he says, “is whether or not John Glenn actually asked for Katherine Johnson to ‘check the numbers.'” The answer is yes: Glenn, the first American in orbit and later, at the age of 77, the oldest man in space, really did ask for Johnson to manually check calculations generated by IBM 7090 computers (the electronic kind) churning out numbers at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Though the film shows Glenn asking for Johnson’s approval from the launch pad, she was actually called in well before the launch. Calculating the output for 11 different variables to eight significant digits took a day and a half. Her calculations matched the computer’s results exactly. Not only did her conclusions give Glenn and everyone else confidence in the upcoming launch, but they also proved the critical computer software was reliable.

When she is transferred into the all white domain in the West Computing Wing the tension and underlying resentment from one male worker, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons plays the stereotypical subdued white collar racist to perfection)  is palpable. It is the scenes in the operational room before and during the space launches that provide the most tension in the movie.

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Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, was a mathematician and aerospace engineer. She petitions a judge to let her take the necessary night courses in the all-white high school that will allow her to apply for an open engineering position at NASA.

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Hidden Figures is based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly: Hidden Figures, The Untold Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, a TIME magazine top 10 nonfiction book of 2016.

We’ve had astronauts, we’ve had engineers—John Glenn, Gene Kranz, Chris Kraft. Those guys have all told their stories. Now it’s the women’s turn.

Margot Lee Shetterly

There is plenty of humour in the film as well as a great soundtrack. The fashions – from beehive 60s hairdos to colourful and impractical stilettos and skirts and cardigans detailed to perfection to brighten the sets. There are classic gas guzzling cars too.

Real footage of the times from speeches by JFK, shots of Dr Martin Luthor King Jr, and scenes of space launch successes and disasters all used to good effect in the film.

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Two days after the United States announced its intention to launch an artificial satellite, on July 31, 1956, the Soviet Union announced its intention to do the same.

Sputnik 1 was launched on October 4, 1957, beating the United States and stunning people all over the world.

  • October 4, 1957, First artificial satellite – First signals from space Sputnik 1
  • November 3, 1957, First dog in orbit ( Laika) Sputnik 2
  • April 12, 1961, First human spaceflight (Yuri Gagarin)

The footage of the Russian efforts as reported by world news reminded me of my Dad singing a ditty about Yuri Gargarin. Britain wasn’t that involved with the space race and so the Russian success was probably looked upon with more admiration on Scotland’s side of the Atlantic!

YURI GAGARIN

Chorus
Oh dear, Yuri Gagarin,
He flew tae the moon when it looked like a farthing,
He said tae the boys at the moment of parting
“Ah’m juist gaun away for the Fair”

Now inside the ship he lay down like a hero,
The doors were sealed up and the countdown was near-o
Ten-nine-eight-seven-six-five-four-three-two-one-zero
An Yuri went up in the air

Now when he took off he was shook tae the marra
He circled the poles and he saw the Sahara,
He gave them a wave as he passed over Barra
The day he went up in the air

Now when he went up it was just aboot dawning,
The time when the rest of the world wis still yawning
Then Yuri returned to the land he wis born in
Withoot even turning a hair

When he came tae London they tried the saft pedal,
A wee bowler hat and a rolled-up umbreddle
But the foundrymen went an’ they struck him a medal
An gied it tae him at the fair

This song is in praise of the first man to go into space and orbit the earth, the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, on 12th April 1961.

The song was written in the vernacular by Glasgow actor and writer Roddy McMillan to the tune of ‘Johnny’s So Long At The Fair’ and has been published in a collection of traditional and new Scots songs as a resource for primary schools, Gallus Publishing  Great Britain, 2013.

Praise Long Overdue

Hidden Figures acknowledges the commitment of all those involved in the pioneer space program, including for the first time the contributions of the African-American mathematicians, engineers and computing experts.

Poetic licence sees the sequence of real events compressed and Kevin Costner plays the head of the Space Task group with dramatic flair, along with his crewcut, conservative collar and tie, and constant gum chewing; he’s a man of the times.

This is an important movie and it will trigger many memories for baby boomers – most of us were sent home from school in 1969 to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. In many of my writing classes that day looms large in memory but I guarantee no one knew about the amazing Hidden Figures.

I hope you enjoy the film as much as I did. I’ll leave you with an apt quote from the first man to go into space…

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Left Wing Ladies Still Flying High

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In 1999, the United Nations General Assembly declared November 25 the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (IDEVAW) and the White Ribbon has become the symbol for the day.

The White Ribbon Campaign in Australia is led by more than 1000 White Ribbon Ambassadors. These men are leaders in their careers, sporting code or communities and actively support the White Ribbon Campaign, and encourage other men and boys to become aware and engage in the campaign.

Women also support and expand the campaign through their networks, workplaces and community organisations as White Ribbon Champions, but not all women are happy with the high profile and amount of money channelled into this foundation.

Respect For White Ribbon Day’s Aims, But…

In the Herald Sun online, journalist Nina Funnell gave  “10 reasons why I will ignore White Ribbon day” and although I don’t usually read the Herald Sun, her article came up when I Googled ‘White Ribbon.’ One of her points resonated:

” Since its inception White Ribbon has happily leant on the work done by decades of women’s organisations and in private it still attempts to foster positive relationships with feminist organisations.

But in public, it’s a different story. As Clementine Ford writes the White Ribbon Foundation has done this “in order to align itself with a more corporate, mainstream agenda that ignores the hard work done by underfunded women’s health services across the country”.

Look White Ribbon, I get it. You’re trying to impress your corporate dude-bros. All that corporate slick and polish is important to you and feminist organisations don’t really meld with that image you’re going for.

But just don’t expect us damsels to passively sit by and cop this crap.”

We All Stand On The Shoulders of Those Who Came Before…

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Left-Wing Ladies
The Union of Australian Women in Victoria, 1950 – 2012 (2nd edition)
2nd Edition Published 2012 by UAW  Ross House, Flinders Lane, Melbourne

This book sheds light on the policies and practices of Australian governments, political parties, trade unions, security and intelligence organisations, the Churches and the women’s movement. It has relevance for anyone interested in the politics of the Left, women’s issues and feminism, the peace movement – and how to organise at a grassroots level.

 

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Anna Burke MP and Anne Sgro 2014

 

Last year, the Union of Australian Women was 65 years old.  President Anne Sgro visited the Southern Branch in Mordialloc, to revisit UAW history by referencing the above book and reminding us why it is important we remain resolute in the fight for social justice.

To paraphrase Paul Keating, we continue to be ordinary women achieving extraordinary things!

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Anne reminded us  we need to celebrate and acknowledge our aims of peace, social justice, gender equity and a fair go for women. Aims still as relevant today, if not more so, than when the foundation members began the organisation.

The fight to redress and reduce family violence very much a case in point!

 

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In 1950, communities were recovering from WW2. Women needed equal pay and better housing. Change needed – and women knew what they wanted.

Those women would be amazed we still only earn 82% of the male wage!

The equal pay campaign – equal pay for work of equal value still to be won. Some occupations like teachers better placed than others, but areas considered traditionally women’s work still lacks value. A car park attendant can earn more than a childcare worker. Pay equity still a necessity, despite huge advances basic demands still to be achieved.

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Zelda Soprano

 

The founding women were from the Communist Party, the ALP and Christians from churches working for peace and social justice. The first UAW President, Aileen Dickie, a devout Christian, courageous and tenacious working for change.

Ordinary women with progressive values looking at ways to make change happen. They organised and attended international conferences, forums and community meetings. They challenged a conservative Australia with those in power pushing the message women must go back to the kitchen, housework and home. John Howard’s white picket fence.

Many of the women who initiated radical change came from the southern area – the south-eastern suburbs: Betty Olle, Molly Hadfield, Dot Young, Nola Barber, Eileen Cappocci…

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Molly Hadfield and Edith Morgan featured in the SMH during the 1998 waterfront dispute

 

Over 15-20 years these women trail blazed, fundraised, and lobbied – councils, state and federal governments, corporations and individuals. They understood practicalities and can take the credit for establishing 13 kindergartens, several libraries, countless bus routes, and the election of female councillors and mayors.

Zelda Soprano chained herself to railings, Yvonne Smith and Betty Olle also – drawing attention to UAW demands and ideals. Yvonne Smith achieved remarkable advances in the health field by setting up the DES Society for women affected by the morning sickness pill (Diethylstilbestrol), which led to their children being born ill.

The Nothing on A Plate exhibition illustrates what some in sensible shoes, hats and sturdy constitution can do!  The well-known tram ride, where the activists paid 75% of the fare garnered great publicity, getting the population onside for the push for equal pay.

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The campaigns to expose how drinking in Women’s Lounges in hotels cost more and for women to be allowed to drink where they wanted saw a lot of women chaining themselves to bar stools. It was about the principle of equal access and cost.

The equal pay campaign usually carried out at demonstrations with placards, hiccupped during the Vietnam  War years because of a ban on placards. However,  innovative UAW activists put slogans on aprons and walked single file or in pairs on the pavement – just not in bunches!

The Kennett years saw an expansion of these crocodile marches – making a fuss in small groups: single file, aprons plus a megaphone, stopping in a key area so that 20 activists looked and sounded more like 100!

The Grandmothers Against Detention have adopted similar tactics to ensure they take over the footpath. Aprons in the 60s, placards in the 90s, and direct action still today as UAW activists use their voices to make a difference.

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The UAW wrote submissions for the Arbitration Commission on behalf of women workers in the sweatshop industry, lobbied for affordable, decent, public housing in the post-war era.

It seems like déjà vu with a lot of these issues, but passion hasn’t lessened. Methods of action and of organising have changed. The UAW has kept up with digital technology and social media, recognising young women activists operate differently today.

However, the UAW are effective at putting in submissions and had their say at the Royal Commission into Family Violence.

The UAW has always opposed family violence even although in the 50s and 60s no one talked about it.

They established friendships and relationships with Women’s Liberation in Victoria and supported the movement setting up Women’s Refuges in the 70s. Anne Summers piece in the book, Fury: Women Write About Sex, Power and Violence edited by Samantha Trenoweth explains the setting up of Elsie, the first women’s refuge in Sydney and is a sobering read.

The UAW is proud of the long-standing campaign to free Heather Osland, who spent 14 and 1/2 years in gaol for the murder of her violent husband when it was her son who actually committed the killing.

Anne reflected on how Dot Young spoke at a UAW forum and said, ‘when I was 19 and had a small baby, I shot my father.’  Dot’s father had been a violent abusive drunk and she was protecting her mother, herself and her baby.  

Family violence does not only affect women but the majority of perpetrators are male. Women suffer at the hands of abusive men with on average 2 women a week killed in Australia! 

 

 

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We could do with a sign like this here! 

 

The opportunity presented by the Royal Commission must not be wasted. If these deaths were attributed to terrorism there’d be a public outcry for action; it would be classified as urgent. Ex-police commissioners, Christine Nixon and Simon Overland introduced some good initiatives and Ken Lay has continued their work but so much more needs to be done.

What is wrong with our society that this violence against women and children continues? Not only men must soul search and change.

We need gender equity, society must value women and the work they do, their nurturing and caring roles as well as other contributions. Men are still seen as the breadwinner, blokes considered more important therefore disparity continues.

Men wouldn’t punch their workmates and get away with it, yet they are violent at home.

When Germaine Greer wrote the groundbreaking Female Eunuch in 1970 she said, we don’t want what blokes want, for us the gender equity recognition is about something different.

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Maybe we need to try different approaches to deal with violent men. In Glasgow, they are immediately taken into custody for 24 hours, and there are programs in schools to change attitudes and behaviour. Maybe we should look at making men responsible with compulsory stints in prison.

We have to continue to look at the feminist dream of the 70s and work to create a fairer and more just society.

Wear a white ribbon on November 25, but instead of buying merchandise donate the money instead to an organisation on the front line of family violence because they definitely need it! Here are just a few…

Domestic Violence Victoria

WESNET The Women’s Services Network

Safe Steps (formerly Women’s Domestic Violence Crisis Service of Victoria)

Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA) Forum

Women’s Health in the South East

WAYSS Ltd

No To Violence 

 

Courageous Catalyst For Change

 

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Yours truly with Yordy

 

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe

Throughout my life, I’ve been involved in movements for social justice, and privileged to meet, see, or read people who leave an indelible mark on my psyche, challenge my opinions, confront me with new knowledge, inspire me – and usually leave me feeling glad there are such amazing, vibrant spirits around working to touch the life of others in a positive way.

The Power of Storytelling And Art

Attending the preview of the film about the making of the stage play, The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe at the Nova Cinema and meeting theatre director and filmmaker, Ros Horin and one of the “African Ladies”, Yordanos left me humbled and richer for the experience.

The after-screening discussion a privilege because we heard responses from refugees and asylum seekers, teachers and writers, radio broadcasters and actors. The raw honesty of so many people working to promote a strong message that violence against women is wrong, and there must be cultural shifts throughout the world – whether first or third world countries, institutions or the home.

Below is a snapshot from an extensive gallery online:

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From the stage production of the play

A Film and A Play

The only time I feel jealous of Sydney is when there is an art exhibition, festival, play or other performance that doesn’t venture south of the border. Melbourne may be the world’s most liveable city and we have memorable art venues and events here, but we missed out on a groundbreaking stage production.

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe stage play never came to Melbourne although it did tour overseas. A great hit at the WOW  (Women Of the World)  festival in London.

I first heard it mentioned on Q and A by Tony Burke MP who supported the project. (In the film he has a cameo appearance when the then Governor-General Quentin Bryce  and other supporters like Tony, go backstage to congratulate the cast). On Q and A, Tony mentioned how powerful the play is regarding exposing the effects not only of violence against women in war but within families and communities.

Watching the film of how these four inspirational African women came together to not only tell their harrowing stories but work with Ros Horin to celebrate their survival by telling it on stage is the next best thing to actually seeing the play.

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Yordy and Ros at the Nova

 

As an extension of the work of The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe theatre production, this film seeks to share the powerful stories of these four women and their traumatic experiences of civil war, rape, sexual abuse and violence to a much larger Australian and international audience.

The film reveals their extraordinary journeys of struggle, empowerment, and healing through the arts, as the four African women, former refugees, play themselves in a moving story based on their own terrifying experiences.

A Thought-Provoking Film

An inspirational story of courage and resilience, that reveals the transformative power of storytelling through the arts.

I Came By Boat Project

I was invited to see the film preview because I donated to the crowdfunding for the I Came By Boat Campaign another project using the power of storytelling to challenge people’s assumptions and change attitudes.

I guarantee your emotions will be engaged when you hear the stories of the “African Ladies” but also uplifted when you see the empowerment of the women and pride of families, especially their children.

 

The aim of this unique and exceptional project is to be a catalyst for open dialogue about violence within communities all over the world. It needs to reach as many people as possible including schools, government bodies, and social impact groups.

 

Check out their website for screening dates, and if you can, please support the distribution of this film to the wider audience it so richly deserves.

It was such a privilege to witness the honesty and openness by Ros, Aminata, Rosemary, Yarrie and Yordy.  They not only shared the stories for the play but so much more about their personal journeys about acting for the first time – performing as the cold observer on their own story.

There are glimpses in the film about playwriting and acting and it was fascinating to hear all the contingency plans Ros had in place to protect the women from the emotional trauma of retelling their stories.

Yordy had a breakdown and withdrew from the project. Being the cold observer impossible but we see her recover and rejoin the troupe. There is a lot of joy in this film.

I hope The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe has the viewing and success it so richly deserves.

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Songlines Exhibition Celebrates Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Culture in Kingston

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Entrance to Paola Balla’s exhibition

Today was the beginning of NAIDOC Week, celebrations held across Australia each July

to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The national NAIDOC theme for 2016 is: Songlines: The living narrative of our nation.

As Kingston Citizen of the Year, I was invited to attend the opening of a wonderful exhibition by the artist Paola Balla, a Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara woman of the Day & Egan families, which is part of NAIDOC activities in Kingston.

Paola is of Italian and Chinese heritage and is a mother, artist, curator, writer, speaker, educator and cultural producer whose work includes developing Footscray Community Arts Centre’s Indigenous Cultural program, lecturer at Moondani Balluk Indigenous Academic Unit, Victoria University, Senior Curator of the First Peoples’ Exhibition at Melbourne Museum and in 2015 curated Executed, honouring the freedom fighters, Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener for the City of Melbourne.

Currently, Artist in Residence for Moondani Balluk, Victoria University, Paola is conducting research into trans-generational colonial trauma as a Creative Thesis PhD.

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Interpreting this year’s national NAIDOC theme of ‘Songlines: The living narrative of our nation’,  Paola presents a series of new photographic and site-specific works as a love letter of respect and awe to her Aboriginal family and the strong, beautiful women within it. There are paintings, photographs, poetry, sculpture and a slide show with country music audio – a veritable feast of creative talent! 

the artist Paola and grandmother's poemgrandmothers poem

Paola’s work is driven by a commitment to justice, addressing trans-generational colonial trauma, creating spaces for people to have ownership and voice through de-colonising practices and the assertion of sovereignty. She puts the gaze back on whiteness and colonisation by asserting her identity as a sovereign woman and as the descendant of matriarchs.

Her work addresses colonial injury and celebrates Aboriginal female beauty and strength.

the artist Paola Ballaexplanation of the gown

At her Artist Floor Talk on Saturday 16 July at 2pm, there will be a fantastic opportunity to learn about the artist’s Aboriginal heritage and her inspiration for the exhibition.

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Tamsin acknowledging Country with a series of canvas paintings in the background.

 

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The Mayor opening the exhibition

 

Mayor Tamsin Beardsley opened the NAIDOC celebrations acknowledging the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land. This is the seventh year running, Kingston Arts celebrates NAIDOC with a month-long program featuring a range of arts and cultural activities including :

Clock Tower Projections by Josh Muir INTEGRITY, LOYALTY, RESPECT: Screening nightly from Sunday 3 July, 6-9pm . Josh is a Melbourne-based multimedia artist and proud Yorta Yorta/ Gunditjmara man. He painted an illuminating picture of Aboriginal people of Victoria during Melbourne’s White Night celebrations and now his stunning artworks will be projected onto the Kingston City Hall Clock Tower.

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Tonight once it gets dark the passersby will be in for a treat!

 

The history and development of NAIDOC Week can be read here and a timeline downloaded and a full explanation of the theme Songlines: The living narrative of our nation

 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are today using digital technologies and modern mediums to record and celebrate these ancient Songlines or dreaming stories.

Dreaming tracks crisscross Australia and trace the journeys of our ancestral spirits as they created the land, animals and lores. These dreaming tracks are sometimes called ‘Songlines’ as they record the travels of these ancestral spirits who ‘sung’ the land into life.

Songlines are intricate maps of land, sea and country. They describe travel and trade routes, the location of waterholes and the presence of food. In many cases, Songlines on the earth are mirrored by sky Songlines, which allowed people to navigate vast distances of this nation and its waters…

Aboriginal language groups are connected through the sharing of Songlines with each language group responsible for parts of a Songline.

Through songs, art, dance and ceremony, Torres Strait Islanders also maintain creation stories which celebrate their connection to land and sea. 

Songlines have been passed down for thousands of years and are central to the existence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They are imperative to the preservation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural practices…

Through learning more about Songlines and how they connect people to Country and the Country to people – we celebrate the rich history and diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures – the oldest continuing cultures on the planet.

 

 

The artist and arts officers
Paola with Kirsten Freeman and another member of the Kingston’s Arts & Cultural Services Team with Paola’s Photograph of  her country in the background

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THE IMPORTANCE OF WELCOME TO COUNTRY

Aunty Carolyn Briggs, a Boonwurrung Elder from Victoria who is recognized as a keeper of the history and genealogies of her people welcomed us to Country. She complimented the Mayor on her pronunciation of Aboriginal words and explained the Kulin are the five language groups who are the traditional owners in the Port Phillip region.

The language groups were connected through shared moieties (divided groups) — the  Bunjil (wedge-tailed eagle) and Waa (crow). Bunjil is the creation spirit of the Kulin and Waa the protector of the waterways.  Their collective traditional territory extends around Port Phillip and Western Port, up into the Great Dividing Range and the Loddon and Goulburn River valleys.

  ‘It’s about the strength of families, our heritage and the sense of belonging to place.’

The ‘Welcome to Country’ is only given by a Traditional Owner – a descendant of the first people living in an area. The Traditional Owner will welcome people to their land at the beginning of a meeting, event or ceremony.

Aunty Caroline Briggs
Aunty Carolyn Briggs

For the Aboriginal people, the land has a spiritual connection; it is mother. The human spirit is born from land and returns to it upon death. The land supplies everything necessary for living.

Outside, Carolyn’s grandson also offered traditional Welcome to Country with the Smoking Ceremony (Tanderrum). Green leaves from plants are placed on a small fire. The smoke is used to cleanse the area and people present.

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This traditional way of welcoming people to their land and of cleansing your soul involved three plants for the ceremony. The purification ritual is always undertaken by an Aboriginal person with specialised cultural knowledge.

Aunty Carolyn Briggs reminded us that smoking ceremonies are common in countries throughout the world.

The Black Wattle (Muyan) representing the elders, vital to local clans. Symbolic of the Elders’ strength and what they pass onto the future generation. The wattle (its seed, bark, wood, and gum) was used to provide nutrients, food, and warmth.

River Red Gum leaf ( Biel) – representing diversity within the community – more than 500 different eucalypts throughout Australia just as there are more than 500 different indigenous language groups or clans. Symbolic of the entire community and offers respective access to the land and its resources.

Cherry Ballart- (Ballee) – represents children (bubup) needs a host plant just as children need a guardian or Elder to grow. Symbolic of youth, strong and resilient but requires support when young and never really disconnect.

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There was difficulty getting the fire to light because of the wind so modern technology (cigarette lighter) was harnessed amid much laughter, but we were all able to circle the fire (children first, then ladies, then men) and inhale the smoke to cleanse our souls.

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The atmosphere in the exhibition (despite serious subject matter) and outside was friendly and uplifting. A great buzz as people chatted and shared stories.

When Paolo spoke about her exhibition she mentioned Mok Mok,  an old woman, ‘a hag’ who she was told to fear as a little girl because she steals children and kills and chops up men.

Always watching and waiting for people to break laws Mok Mok was written about by the esteemed Elder and author, Aunty Margaret Liliarda Tucker, one of the first Aboriginal women to write her autobiography: If Everyone Cared, published in 1977.

Mok Mok is angry about how women and children are treated, too much male violence and too many children being stolen.

The assorted photographic images, slideshow and audio relating to the story of Mok Mok are thought-provoking and provide a strong message:

Our Elders and matriarchs keep family stories, genealogies, connections, nurturing ways, child raising, teaching, singing, language and culture and teach me how to be an Sovereign Aboriginal woman. I respect these lessons by quietly listening, passing on knowledge to my children and creating works that reflect the strength of our women so they are not forgotten.

I hope people take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to connect with Paola and her art and for further information and interaction with Aboriginal Australia during NAIDOC Week, visit Lisa Hill’s blog and take part in her great initiative for Indigenous Literature Week.

The Kingston Arts Centre is easy to access by public transport, being a short walk from Moorabbin Railway Station. A selection of buses also stop outside and there is a carpark at the back.

When I was preparing to write this post, I reflected on many years of involvement with various groups fighting alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as they struggled for recognition and respect. I’m so glad that the Andrews Government in Victoria has started negotiations for a Treaty. Recognising Aboriginal Sovereignty has to be the first step in true reconciliation.

I rummaged through a box of old posters in the shed – many already enjoyed by silverfish – and was reminded of events, people and places from the past, 1970 – 2000.

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Unfortunately, some of my Aboriginal friends died far too young and although we now see the Aboriginal flag above council offices, and many officials are mindful of Welcome to Country protocols, there still needs to be more appreciation of the cultural significance and contribution of Indigenous Australians in the wider community.

How easily memories are triggered and stories beg to be retold and retained.

 

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Why I Had my Say on International Women’s Day 2016

 

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What a week in the political calendar with International Women’s Day victim to mercurial Melbourne’s weather. An  El Niño escapade creating a  record breaking 41 degrees on Tuesday, March 8th.

On the day women celebrate with various events, mine culminated with a 6.00pm march through city streets after I’d been a keynote speaker in the morning and taught in the afternoon. In local vernacular, by evening I was knackered – the old grey mare ain’t what she used to be!

Although officially autumn, Melbourne sweltered.

When I joined my daughters at the march in the city it was great to be among vocal and delightful young people, but also sad that we are still fighting for many of the same issues that motivated me to action in the 70s.

On the march I had a conversation with a young police officer in his 20s.

‘You drew the short straw,’ I said by way of conversation and indicated the heat.

‘Oh, no, this is just part of general police duties when assigned to the city,’ he replied. ‘Why are you all marching?’

‘It’s International Women’s Day.’

‘Here?’

‘Yes, and all round the world. Where were you born?’

‘In Hong Kong.’

‘Don’t they march there?’

‘Oh, I don’t know…. Why and when did it start?’

I explained the brief history of the event and that marching on this day started in Melbourne in 1975.

‘But why are you marching?’

‘This year we’re seeking wage parity among other things.’

He pondered for a moment and asked, ‘When did women get the vote?’

I wasn’t sure if he was implying ‘what more do you want’ or if he thought women’s suffrage was granted evenly throughout the world, or if he actually cared because our conversation ended abruptly as he fell back to attend to a traffic snarl.

 

 

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The next day there was a protest to keep the plight of asylum seekers facing deportation, in the public eye and although not quite so hot, travelling into the city again after working,  took a toll on my weary body, especially since the unseasonal weather made sleep elusive!

However, I met some marvellous women and we swapped addresses. The female police officer in charge of city duties supportive and caring. The demonstration went off with a lot of good humour and co-operation from police and public.

On Being Asked To Speak

I was surprised when I was asked to be the keynote speaker at the City of Kingston’s annual IWD celebration held at Doyles in Mordialloc. For several years, I’ve  attended as part of the audience if not working, never imagining I’d ever be the main speaker.

However, it is one of several invitations I’ve received since being awarded Kingston Citizen of the Year 2016 and I was more than happy to speak about the Power of Story and Words and champion the value and joy of teaching creative writing in neighbourhood houses.

The topic agreed upon after a discussion with the council’s Community Engagement Team, Dominic, Kate and Gillian, aptly titled Wellbeing Officers.

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The MC for the morning, Gemma O’Shea, Kingston Young Citizen of the Year, demonstrated poise, a clear voice and skilful handling of the program with a confidence I wished I’d had at her age (and even wished I felt that morning).

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Gemma introducing the Penguin Club speakers

The Mayor, Councillor Tamsin Bearsley spoke well as usual, the audience spellbound as she shared her story and journey towards choosing to stand for public office.

Tamsin confided that she had been brought up as a Christadelphian, in a conservative Christian family where women did not have a voice in church services or the decisions of the church. Christadelphians believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God and take their attitudes from their interpretation of the Scriptures.

Christadelphians also believe that the Bible teaches them to avoid all involvement in politics: no voting, no joining political parties, no demonstrations, no protest groups and no becoming elected representatives.

Tamsin went to school locally at Mentone Girls’ Secondary College and won the Premier’s Information Technology Prize when Jeff Kennett was Premier of Victoria. She found the encounter with Kennett inspiring and while studying Robotics during her teaching degree she met her future husband who is a Catholic. The desire to pursue teaching and marriage entailed a break with the Christadelphians and their strict beliefs.

A friendship with former Councillor and later MP for Carrum, Donna Bauer, who became a mentor, led to Tamsin’s involvement in local politics. She closed her speech encouraging everyone to put their hand up to take a more active role in the community and be empowered to stand for elected office. A strong message considering the obstacles Tamsin overcame to have her voice heard.

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The Mayor, Cr Tamsin Bearsley

The next three speakers were from the Penguin Club of Australia Inc. An organisation which offers a supportive, friendly environment  emphasising participation for women to develop confidence and communication skills, especially in public speaking. The Bayside Group meets twice a month in Clarinda on the 1st and 3rd Wednesday.

I sat nervously awaiting my turn watching Claire Houston, Patricia Buchanan and Ann Keys from the Club. They presented with such confidence it made me envious. They asked two questions I could definitely answer with a ‘Yes!’

Does the thought of standing up to speak fill you with terror?

Would you like to develop the confidence that you admire in other people?

The three spoke eloquently and fluently, giving a short history of the oral tradition most cultures have, including our own, and why famous speeches resonate and how we can learn to emulate impressive speakers.

The next speaker, Mary Rimington OAM, has been a longtime activist in the conservation movement and secretary of the Mordialloc Beaumaris Conservation League for many years.

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Mary Rimington OAM

Mary spoke about the role of women in the MBCL participating in community consultations, preparing submissions, attending hearings, meetings and letter writing. The achievements of this hardworking lobby group are many: protecting the foreshore vegetation and cliffs from erosion, encouraging the clean up of Mordialloc Creek, retaining the Green Wedge, and campaigning for better planning decisions city-wide as well as for Port Phillip Bay.

Mary’s involvement goes back to 1969 and she has campaigned for and against many decisions by politicians of all political persuasions. The newspaper clippings she showed revealed just how feisty negotiations were many years ago and how lucky we are that local people like herself have continued to honour past state premier Rupert Hamer’s vision for retaining green wedges around Melbourne when he claimed in parliament:

that nobody could happily contemplate a future metropolis of seemingly endless suburbia spreading out to infinity.’

We can thank former councillors and some locals who were prepared to be arrested, for stopping a dangerous oil pipeline being routed through the bay. The power of words coupled with action.

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After Mary, it was my turn and I included two poems to give the audience and myself some relief.

I was grateful I had friends sitting in the audience – from Mordialloc Writers’ Group (Eve, Maureen, Kristina, Dorothy, Lisa) and from the Southern Branch of the Union of Australian Women (Amy, Evelyn, Barbara, Mary). Also, Lorna my ‘boss’  from Longbeach Place, Gulay the head of the committee I was on at Central Bayside Health, plus of course my lovely number two daughter, Mary Jane.

Anne couldn’t take time off work, but she listened to me rehearsing the speech the night before and gave valuable feedback. Before the program began, I  discovered two friends  from the days when my daughters attended Mordialloc Primary School. Catherine and Susan had come along because they heard I was  speaking.

The windows revealed Mordialloc Creek looked picture postcard magnificent. At least anyone losing interest had a wonderful view for daydreaming.

Is it better for the nerves to speak in front of friends or strangers? Not sure of the answer, except I was glad when the speech went without  mishap and I even received compliments. I work on the philosophy that people don’t have to say something nice and took all praise at face value.

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me in full flight

International Women’s Day 2016

I acknowledge that this gathering is on Aboriginal land and respectfully acknowledge the past and present traditional owners, the Boonwerung people of the Kulin Nation, and pay respects to their elders past and present. Today, I especially honour and recognise the strength, resilience and capacity of Aboriginal women.

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I thank the Mayor, Cr Tamsin Bearsley, and acknowledge other councillors and representatives from the City of Kingston who facilitated today. I’m still humbled and stunned to be regarded as Kingston’s Citizen of the Year and to be speaking at this celebration.

And it is a celebration, although joy is easily tempered in a world of instant and constant communication reminding us of sorrow. I find it helps to write out my observations about this constant turmoil. Here is a recent poem.

Latte Lament
Mairi Neil

We sit in the cafe
indulging a desire
for coffee and cake
and a need
for each other …

Sensitive souls
we struggle to accept
that sitting, sipping coffee:
skinny latte, cappuccino, mochaccino
long or short black

And devouring slices
of gluten free, fructose free, fat-free,
carrot cake and chocolate muffin –
is not conscience free…

Modern media mobility
screams of drought, bushfires
floods at home and
tragedies abroad: war, random shootings,
terrorist attacks, refugee crises…

France,
Greece,
Indonesia,
Iraq,
Israel,
Kenya,
Lebanon,
Palestine,
Sri Lanka,
Syria,
Turkey,
Ukraine
Manus Island and Nauru…

We skip the sugar and cream
Search mobile screen for funny meme.

 

International Women’s Day first emerged from the activities of labour movements in North America and Europe, at the turn of last century. Now the day has assumed extensive global dimensions.

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We can safely say, International Women’s Day is here to stay! (There’s a nice bit of rhyme for you!) Words and how we use them, important.

Writing can amuse, prick your conscience, stir memories, educate and affect change. Textbooks and media tell their versions of an event but ordinary people live through the experience. Our stories, our points of view are important to record as a legacy for future generations. The pen is mightier than the sword when the stories and poems of a generation remain. They reflect lives more truthfully than a cold observer recording, sifting through records, or perhaps writing what they’re told or paid to write.

For centuries, we had HIStory, not HERstory.

Susan Sontag described a writer as ‘sitting in a room every day, year after year, alone.

Not me! I’m a passionate writer who has become a passionate teacher of writing! Privileged to hear and encourage people to write amazing stories, real or imagined, adding insight into what it means to be human.

 

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Today, a time to reflect on achievements and thank the ordinary women and men in myriad countries and diverse communities for their courage and determination in calling for change. Women’s rights are human rights, feminists are male, female and genderqueer. Our language and attitude must change to be inclusive and recognise diversity.

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The United Nations began celebrating IWD on the 8th March during International Women’s Year in 1975. Some in this room will remember that year with mixed emotions.

In the November, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was sacked by an unelected Governor General – party politics and the Republican debate aside – many women feared the door to a future of their choosing would be slammed, or the locks changed.

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The Whitlam government’s gifts of free tertiary education, Commonwealth funds flowing to childcare places, Medicare, specialist health and welfare services for women, women’s refuges and rape crisis centres, made a huge difference to women’s lives. This could be snatched away or revert to the privileged few.

In 1971, because I won a Commonwealth scholarship, I was the first and only one of 6 siblings, in my migrant family to attend university. When Gough removed the financial barrier, thousands of women and men enrolled – many as mature age students.

In 1975, I worked as a research assistant at the Museum in Russell Street in a job funded by the Federal Government’s Regional Economic Development Program. A beneficiary of the 1972 Equal Pay Case that women undertaking work similar to that undertaken by men should be paid an equal wage I was devastated when the program and my job disappeared with Gough.

Tumultuous times for me and many young women. Not unusual, however, time and again it is women and children’s services that bear the brunt of government cost saving. Women are often left with no work, or poorly paid work. The progress made in professional fields is not translated to the majority.

However, Mordy Writers benefited from the educational revolution of the 70s. Glenice Whitting went to university and started writing. She is now Dr Glenice Whitting with a prize-winning novel and other writing achievements to her credit. Glenice is one of many who left school early, married, had a family but ached to do something different. In my classes over the years, countless women thanked Gough for making it easier to seek education. A generation of lifelong learners created.

Targeted government support makes a difference to women’s lives.

There have not been many great leaps forward. Progress a hard slog. It was 20 years before the Beijing Conference in 1995 and its twelve areas of critical concern, reviewed last year – another 20 years later.

  • The stocktake decided gender parity in primary education has been achieved, but completion rates and the quality of education are not high across all countries.
  • More women have been elected to public office – about 21% of the world’s parliamentarians are women, up from about 11% in 1995 – but we are still far from parity.
  • More women than ever before are participating in the workforce, but women generally earn less than men and, in rich and poor countries alike, carry a disproportionate burden of unpaid care work which deprives them of time for valuable pursuits like earning money, gaining new skills, and participating in public life.
  • And, while more laws exist to protect women from violence, sexual and gender-based violence continue to occur on every continent and in every country, often reaching horrific levels where there are war and conflict.

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I don’t have to tell people in this room the challenges Australia still faces: we’re not very kind to those in public office, but levels of vitriol and spite for women who achieve high office reached appalling heights against Julia Gillard. And how shameful we needed Rosie Batty and her tragic loss to galvanise governments into concerted action on family violence?

I worked at Maroondah Halfway House in the 70s, the second women’s refuge established in Melbourne. One of my first published writings was in a Croydon church magazine asking for funds for women and children affected by domestic violence. The generous response overwhelming.

There have always been people eager to rectify injustice.

Now we refer to family violence which reflects the true breadth and depth of the problem meriting the Andrews Government’s Royal Commission.

The United Nation’s Women’s Executive’s message this year is ‘Each one of us is needed—in our countries, communities, organisations, governments and in the United Nations — to ensure decisive, visible and measurable actions are taken under the banner: Planet 50-50: Step It Up for Gender Equality.’

Let’s hope that gender equality will see an end to the terrorism women and children face in the place they should be the safest – the home.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon prefaced his message for IWD2016 with a story that reminds us that in some instances there may never be a level playing field for women:

As a boy growing up in post-war Korea, I remember asking about a tradition I observed: women going into labour would leave their shoes at the threshold and then look back in fear. “ They are wondering if they will ever step into those shoes again,” my mother explained.

More than a half-century later, the memory continues to haunt me. In poor parts of the world today, women still risk death in the process of giving life. Maternal mortality is one of many preventable perils. All too often, female babies are subjected to genital mutilation. Girls are attacked on their way to school. Women’s bodies are used as battle fields in wars. Widows are shunned and impoverished.

We can only address these problems by empowering women as agents of change.

Women and girls are critical to finding sustainable solutions to the challenges of poverty, inequality and the recovery of the communities hardest hit by conflicts, disasters and displacements.

They are at the frontline of the outbreaks of threatening new epidemics, such as Zika virus disease or the impact of climate change, and at the same time are the bulwark to protect their families, work for peace, and ensure sustainable economic growth and social change.

In Ban Ki-Moon’s words, ‘We have shattered so many glass ceilings we created a carpet of shards. Now we are sweeping away the assumptions and bias of the past so women can advance across new frontiers.’

The World Health Organisation estimates 830 women die each day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. How wonderful to read about a church hall in the Adelaide Hills where volunteers have met since 1999 to put together birthing kits, containing the bare essentials to help reduce the risk of infection for women giving birth in some of the world’s harshest environments.

The wallet-sized kits are lightweight and cheap, costing just $3 to put together and are credited with a 25% reduction in deaths. 1.4 million have been distributed across the globe including Ethiopia, Myanmar and Afghanistan.

How often do women working for change make the headlines? Grandmothers Against Children in Detention collecting toys, writing letters, organising protests, the women in Warragul making kits for breast cancer survivors to wake up to after their mastectomies. When I read their written prayer and good wishes inside my card, I wept. Strangers thinking of me – our sole connection – womanhood.

We stand on the shoulders of those who have come before. I’m grateful my parents told me to use my voice – whether speaking or writing, to always champion social justice and equity. My mother advised, ‘use the gifts God gave you, you have a brain and a good Scots tongue in your head.’  Dad, said, ‘I don’t care if you’re a street cleaner, just be the most educated cleaner you can be.’

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Part of the answer, not part of the problem. Ideas are easy but turning words into compelling reads is hard.

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Who were or are your mentors? What have they taught you? Have you thanked them? Parents, teachers, employers, neighbours, writers, thinkers – people who’ve shown you the way at some point, revealed the beautiful mystery and challenges of life which made sense in their hands.

Inspiration and passion is contagious. It fuels and fires you up. Keep those mentors in your heart, share their wisdom and pay it forward and help someone else. Women can be really good at doing that – sisterhood is indeed powerful.

Another organisation dear to my heart is the Southern Branch of the Union of Australian Women which meets in Mordialloc.

We’re expert at writing letters and signing petitions. In Kingston we can thank members of the UAW for the first kindergartens, libraries, childcare centres, improved roads and parks and even bus routes.

In Kingston, we have a history of hard working females: councillors, managers of neighbourhood houses, school principals, leaders and activists in countless volunteer organisations. We heard from inspirational Mary Rimington OAM today whose pen has ensured we still have a foreshore of indigenous vegetation, a cleaner creek and many parklands including the Green Wedge. Over the years she’s written thousands of words in submissions and has had letters published in the local papers and The Age.

Those in power do listen – sometimes.

My passion is writing: everyone has a story and I believe they have a right to have their stories heard. Writing in all its forms encourages, and enables stories to be shared. And a story shared is the first step towards understanding each other, a step towards a fair and tolerant society.

In tandem with writing is reading – literacy opens doors to education, skills, better communication. Knowledge is power as is storytelling. Stories link us with the first peoples, with our ancestors, our neighbours and strangers; the legacy we leave our children.

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In Kingston, we’re lucky to have Lisa Hill,  writer of the AnzLit blog – Google Lisa and read her reviews. Choose a book from many of our Indigenous authors – move out of your comfort zone.

My motivation to establish and continue to grow classes in neighbourhood houses was to make creative writing courses available and accessible for all. We learn who we are from writing. Where we’re from and about humanity.

If there is a story attached to a painting, a building, an historical event it makes it more interesting, more realistic, more memorable. The tragedy of the Stolen Generations and the current scandals of sexual abuse within institutions like the Catholic Church all the more powerful when we read individual stories. Like Ban Ki-Moon said, the stories haunt you.

Unknown.pngQualified professionals use writing as therapy. Since the 1980s, researchers have found writing and healing go hand-in-hand, writing can help your:

  • immune system
  • memory
  • blood pressure
  • wounds heal
  • sleeping patterns improve

Emotionally expressive writing is powerful. A healing tool to use working toward better health. When people write about feelings as well as thoughts, describe troubling events, try to see from different perspectives, they may make sense or meaning of the situation.

Most of us have experiences, secrets, troubles that could do with an airing and often fictionalising these is a less traumatic way of dealing with their legacy.

Friendships grow in writing classes along with wellbeing.

In class, we begin by splurging. Students write from a prompt or class discussion. A pencil and a piece of paper all that is needed although students with disabilities may use a tape recorder, iPad or laptop.

We don’t think too deeply in the splurge. Don’t edit ourselves. We write everything that comes to mind. A stream of consciousness allowing imaginations to go wherever they want. Nobody— absolutely no author writes a perfect first draft. The goal is to get a story or poem down on the page where you can see it, share it (if you desire) and then start to shape it.

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What a privilege to have a safe space to tell your story and feel validated when people listen, support, comment, admire, encourage, and even ask to hear more. We are lucky the council and state government see the value in funding neighbourhood houses.

Early women writers submitted work under male pseudonyms, many women in the past have been told their stories and opinions don’t matter, yet the majority of my students over the years have been female and disprove societal assumptions.

The oldest student is 95 this year, Ceinwen has written her memoir about the war years and writes beautiful poetry with insightful detail. She insists, the classes and homework give her a reason to get up in the morning and stay engaged with life.

Two students with acquired brain injury write about the person they are now – both refer to their accident as a rebirth. The steep learning curve to physical, emotional and mental health ongoing. Anat wants to publish her memoir, Michael wants to publish a collection of his poems.

Every story is an endless flow of questions – meaning always in the making as we create and change. What would happen if we valued stories regardless of gender, age, colour, or disability? As a woman, a teacher, a mother and a writer I say, why not change the conversation from ‘It would be nice if…’ to ‘It is essential that…’?

To achieve the goal of gender equality the entire system needs to change. Diversity and equity begin with you. What conversations are you having? Who are the people in your social media feeds? When you go home, is your family the same cultural background? When you go to a party, are your friends all the same? When you look at your bookshelf, are most of the books by similar authors?

If your tastes are not diverse, you may be hearing and reading the same stories over and over again.

Finally, words matter, we can make a conscious decision to change words that have demeaned women and others. Ignore the voices that sneer at political correctness – they may never have been the butt of sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism or ageism.

Words, Words, Are All I Have

Words are my business

Often they flow, or stay sealed like a time capsule

Remembering, imagining, creating, forgetting…

Depending on mood, knowledge, skill… the dictionary

So they can colour the page: language, meaning, interpretation… frustration

Why does the sentence not work

Or the words engage? Where’s the impact?

Rambling, nothing of substance… stuttering

Don’t start… don’t stop… less is more… Oh, decisions!

Structure? Be sensible, sensitive, sarcastic, serious, succinct, smart, strong

Alliteration can work

Repetition a crafty tool. Pizzaz needed

Especially metaphor and simile

Am I mad?

Losing it?

Laughing, crying, anxious, arrogant, scared… confident…

I squeeze the words from the pen

Hammer the keyboard

And shape the words and worlds to

Vindicate the term ‘writer’

End of story!

© Mairi Neil 2016

All presenters were given gorgeous flowers. We listened to the Stiletto Sisters, an energetic and joyful trio who played while we indulged in a delicious morning tea.

In what seemed a blink of the eye, it was time to venture into the horrendous heat and go our separate ways.

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A truly memorable International Women’s Day  allowing me to have my say!

Suffering Suffragettes – Women Do Laugh!

 

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from BBC archive – women in Lancaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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BBC archives -Women’s Social and Political Union 1908

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Women’s Suffrage Petition Memorial Melbourne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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