The Power is in the Word – an Intergenerational Project

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On Wednesday, October 4th, Kingston Seniors Festival 2018 was launched at Westall Community Hub in Clayton South, a new community centre and library that will be twelve months old on Sunday.

The Festival opened by the Mayor, Cr. Steve Staikos who celebrated the completion of the latest Intergenerational Project: The Power’s in the Word.

mayor and ceo close up

The project presented in a partnership between the City of Kingston Social Development team, Kingston Youth Services and Kingston Arts.

I heard about it from Lydia Sorenson, the Positive Ageing Officer, Social Development whom I’d worked with when she was with Youth Services in 2016, my first involvement with an intergenerational project.

I was thrilled to work with Youth Services officers Mealea and Sophie who were involved in the earlier project too.

In 2016, I wrote a short film script and collaborated with a multi-aged team to produce it. Along the way,  we learned about camera angles, lighting, sound, scouting locations and props, permits, schedules and networking.

Favours asked of friends and family. We shared skills and professional knowledge – I gave a writing workshop, photographers lectured on the importance of light, sound experts ran us through recording equipment and dialogue, cinematographers and not for profit filmmakers gave tips and inspiration on what was possible with a limited budget and excess enthusiasm!

The school children and teenagers involved shared their ideas, knowledge and confidence of new technologies and love of all things screen. The premiere of the completed project held at the Shirley Burke Theatre in Parkdale.

Everyone revelled in the Academy Award atmosphere…

It was such a positive experience, I didn’t hesitate to get involved in this latest project.  My friend Jillian and fellow writer played the lead role in my short film, but ill health and travel commitments meant she couldn’t be involved in Power’s in the Word. However, she made the launch and enjoyed the presentations.

me and Jillian
Me and Jillian

This project began in June and entailed a commitment of 12 workshops on a Tuesday evening at the Kingston Arts Centre in Moorabbin.

Story, Print & Poetry Workshops: Inter-generational Project 2018

It was a privilege and fun to be involved with several other seniors and young people. Artwork, including linocuts and poetry, were made and displayed and at the launch, several of us read a poem written for the occasion.

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Both projects enabled me, not only to meet and interact with people I may never have met otherwise but also moved me out of my creative comfort zone. 

We worked alongside writer Emilie Zoey Baker and visual artist and printer Adrian Spurr who taught and supervised the linocuts we produced. To learn printmaking was the drawcard for me,  and to link it with poetry.

Adrian was everyone’s idea of a favourite art teacher. He made a klutz like me feel I’d produced something appealing!

The ten finished pieces from the group looked impressive although I’m not sure what the mayor will do with his framed copy!

Great Things Never Come From Comfort Zones

We started to meet in June and for 13 Tuesday nights we learnt printmaking, discussed various topics, shared stories, and wrote haiku and short prose.

There was a schedule but lots of flexibility.

It was winter and people got sick, or members of their family did. As with any free and volunteer project, people also dropped out. The timeframe coincided with the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, which meant Emilie’s attendance and input varied.

Adrian’s print workshops turned out to be more intense and time-consuming than the organisers realised. The schedule below rearranged as the weeks passed:

  • Introductions and Rumi’s Cube writing exercise
  • Writing about “love”
  • Collograph – flower print-making
  • Collograph and monoprints
  • Writing on Place – haiku
  • Writing on Place – childhood
  • Monoprint and linocut
  • Writing on Place – first home
  • Writing on Place – current linocut
  • Writing on Place – dreamscape
  • Signing of prints
  • Rehearsal and editing
  • Submission of 1-2 pieces on places we have lived

Rumi’s Cube Personality Test…

Emilie had us write as she introduced the various elements of the well-known Rumi’s Cube exercise. 

Briefly, you imagine yourself in a desert and there is a cube of whatever size, material and colour you choose. There is a ladder – you decide where it goes, and a horse – you decide where it is in the position of the cube and what colour and type of horse. There are flowers – how many, colour, type or where growing is up to you. There is a storm cloud – how far away or severe is again up to you.

Ruminating Over Rumi – Mairi Neil

Miles of sand stretching to the horizon…
a clear blue cube, water glistening like dew
a ladder of tree branches rooted in the earth
the cube drip-feeds a carpet of yellow daisies
a large grey mare, heavy with foal shelters
alongside the cube, nibbling at the flowers
preparing to lie down.
Aware the sky is now changing
white clouds becoming bruises on a sea blue sky
transforming to stormy grey
the ladder trembles and sinks
returning to the earth as the cube begins to melt
the landscape awaiting rebirth…

If you Google there are numerous interpretations of the significance of your responses. Emilie’s interpretation just one of many and had some similarities to this:

  • The cube represents you. The size of the cube is your ego. What it is made of (wood, marble, or the texture) determines your feelings or personality.
  • The ladder represents your goals. The length of the ladder shows the scale of your goals, the shorter the ladder the more simple the goal.
  • The horse represents your ideal partner
  • The flowers represent your family and friends. The number of the flowers determines your connections and how close you are to them

  • The Storm represents the obstacle(s) in your life. If the storm is close to the cube/ stationary, then you are experiencing some emotional, mental and hard situations right now.  If the storm is in the distance then you have overcome many challenges and will continue towards victory.

Emilie said she had never come across ‘a pregnant horse’ response before!

Psychoanalysis can make you hungry for comfort food…

After that exercise and the interesting discussion it raised, I was ready for a cup of tea.

Most of the workshops were between 4.30pm and 6.30pm, a couple started at 5.00pm. The lovely council officers ensured food was delivered, they arranged taxis if needed. Always their priority was the happiness and comfort of participants.

In a way, there was too much food, but we gratefully took home plastic containers of leftovers – especially on the pasta and pizza nights that the young folk enjoyed the most. A couple of the participants shared cakes and sandwiches with their U3A writing class the next day!

Collographs and Monoprints and Love

I missed the workshop on Collograph flower prints because I fell that day and had an unplanned trip! The work the others produced amazing, particularly when most were new to the art form.

The larger pieces below examples of Collography.

The writing task was about ‘Love’. I missed out on creating a collograph but could write at home without too much effort.

Love
Mairi Neil

Can love be put into words?
Trust, passion, security, contentment –
limiting the concept seems absurd.
Love is all encompassing, enthralling,
ecstatic and entrancing, but also
mundane, steady, unconditional ––
not all excitement and romancing.

It’s the years of care from a doting Dad –
caressing his ageing skin and feeling sad.
Massaging Mum’s arthritis, being close
savouring the aroma of her Sunday roast.
It’s marmalade and toast made with
daily devotion – delicious pancakes
and scones triggering emotion.

A smile causing the heart to flutter –
a light behind your eyes for no other.
Unexpected flowers to cheer the day,
orchids or roses have something to say.
A heartfelt cuddle, a warm embrace,
loving strength, if trouble you face

It’s gentle bedtime snores confirming
belonging and comfort at night.
Shared laughter and crazy dreams
It’s pride and happiness on sight.
A special tone of voice, whispering
your name, and other endearments,
a baby suckling at breast, content
the promise of future fulfilment.

Nurturing children, bathing and caring
the pleasure of siblings playing together
the squabbles, support, and sharing.
Holding hands with lovers and
celebrating each day with joy
free to be embarrassed or unduly coy.
What is love? Can words describe it well?
Live it, breathe it, only your heart will tell…

Monoprints – what a challenge

Adrian told the class to follow on from their idea for the Collograph and draw something for a monoprint. This would then be drawn on acetate with ink applied and a print produced.

I can’t draw a straight line without a ruler, in fact, I can’t draw anything and don’t try.

What was I to do?

Fortunately, a few days before, I’d been completely enthralled by the first blooms appearing on my bird of paradise plant outside the bedroom window.

Inspiration!

I tried to draw the flower head to appear like a bird – what a mess – a few more strokes and it looked like a bird sucking on the plant.

‘Don’t fiddle’ my mantra – it would have to do.

Adrian gave it the okay and I printed it off. He suggested I use a different paint tool and create a second print. And I did.

In one session I did something I never thought I could.

The monoprint was an expression of a haiku written on the train on the way to the workshop.

After worrying over the session I missed, feeling embarrassed at my artistic ineptitude and lack of talent, I achieve something that doesn’t look too bad.

I’m enjoying this project!

Outside my window
July flowering delights
homegrown paradise

Writing on Place – haiku

With my first haiku written about a place – the garden –  I continued on that theme and write about my home in Mordialloc.

For You – My Garden Haiku
Mairi Neil 2018

Outside my window
July flowering delights
homegrown paradise

The warm dawn sunlight
penetrates the ti-tree bush
baby birds awaken

Red geraniums
withstand sea breezes daily
to perfume driveway

A sturdy bottlebrush
succour to Noisy Minors
Jack’s living tribute

Magpie serenade
from majestic woody throne
a morning Etude

Wattlebird feasting
on blooming grevillea
picnic on the wing

A whiff of rosemary
reminds us of sacrifice
seeds of love and hope

Freshly cut roses
carefully arranged in vase
memories of love

Floral posies in
aromatic profusion
the colours of love

Marigolds dusk glow
sunflowers smiling happiness
promise of sweet dreams

Comments from Participants

quotes about projectemilie's haiku and quotes

And You Too Can Haiku!

Emilie gave everyone the most common guidelines for haiku: the standard seventeen syllables split up into three lines of five, seven and five syllables respectively.

A good starting point, however, most of the young participants didn’t know about haiku poetry we had a lesson where everyone was writing and mouthing syllables as they counted and worried about fitting into the criteria.

Nowadays the form is more fluid. Poets write one, two or four-line haiku and the syllable count can vary enormously.

The extreme minimalism– absolutely no unnecessary words – and the presentation of a defining moment are the most important requirements.

It is important to present the thing itself, the simple truth. No tricks –

Linda France, Mslexia

The haiku is a classical Japanese form. It was an important influence on the imagists – poets like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, and later the Beat Generation, in love with Zen and now it is popular with the generation into mindfulness and ‘living in the moment’.

That is essentially what the haiku is: a moment; a vivid image that seems to make time stand still.

Economy and observation are its two main qualities  –  excellent disciplines for writers, no matter how old or what genre you prefer.

Writing on Place – Childhood – and an idea for Linocut

Brainstorming, thinking in haiku mode, and seeking an image from childhood that could translate onto a tile to be printed – an image I could actually draw so it resembled my words and was achievable for a novice in the art of linocut!

my haiku displayed

Childhood Memories of Scotland
Mairi Neil

At our kitchen table
babble of happy voices
the breath of family

Weather for lamb roasts
rosemary thriving in pot
the smell of Sunday

Scones, pancakes and tea
bramble jam bubbling on stove
Mum’s off-key singing

Bitter icy winds
Jack Frost and his snowmen arrive
snowball fights are fun

The teapot ever ready
Soothing sorrows and worries
culture and comfort

Dad’s railway uniform
always trailing soot and coal
and the sound of steam

Daily tidal dance
a rumbling in the distance
tuning life’s rhythms

But shipyards must close
jobs and happiness are scarce
Australia needs us

At the dinner table
lively discussions hosted
no topic ignored

Time to leave our home
the inner child’s fear frozen
warm climate ahead

The learning curve and level of excitement rose as Adrian demonstrated the various carving and cutting tools and the method for sculpting. We were given a special board to ensure no nasty slips with very sharp objects!

Despite there being octagenarians, septuagenarians and sixty-five year old me around the table, there was no tragic blood-soaked workshops.

It is not an easy task drawing on a tile and then deciding what is positive and negative space so that you cut out a design and produce a print of what you want – what parts of the drawing will remain solid and black, what parts will not be inked.

Tanya, one of the participants who is a well-known artist in her own right, advised me to chalk white the parts that I didn’t want to carve and then wipe off the chalk when finished. Great advice.

Most of us took our tiles home in between sessions and used the tools Adrian kindly lent us so that we’d be finished by the end of the project. I am indebted to my daughter, Mary Jane for helping me and ensuring I didn’t cut away too much of the tile.

close up of my linocut

My first attempt at inking resulted in a couple of dirty marks. Adrian showed me how to clean up the tile and reprint until I was satisfied with the finished product. The second print was fine.

What a relief to know that you get a second chance, even with something as complicated as this.

Writing on Place – First Home – Belonging – What we remember…

It’s amazing how one memory triggers another and in a writing workshop, like pirates, we pick up gems from others and it helps us to remember, reflect and write.

One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say

Bryant H. McGill

Another youth worker involved in the project was Sophie and one night,  some new young people joined us and we did a getting to know you exercise called Intergen Bingo. We moved around the room to discover various facts about each other to match at least three pieces of description to a person:

  • was born overseas
  • has a dog
  • favourite food is pizza
  • catches public transport
  • likes listening to rock music
  • enjoys gardening
  • drinks coffee
  • plays a musical instrument
  • cannot eat a certain food
  • likes to tell stories
  • plays a sport
  • has an older sibling
  • wears glasses
  • can speak another language
  • has a job
  • has green eyes
  • likes going for walks

The room was soon abuzz with multiple conversations, laughter and surprise. The questions had led to more questions and a better understanding of each other.

I ticked plenty of the boxes, discovered three others had hazel eyes like me, that dog lovers outnumbered cat lovers and the names of two groups the Avalanchers and Jokers played music regarded as ‘surf rock’ – a genre I didn’t know existed.

We discussed what to read at the launch of the project. The presentation needed to be as close to a minute as possible.

A poem about the house we came to live in when we migrated to Australia in 1962 was deemed suitable.

close up of me reading

Aussie Childhood
Mairi Neil

I grew up in bushy Croydon
the trees grew thick around,
milk and bread delivered
to a tuneful clip-clop sound.

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

The streets were mainly dirt tracks
a collection of potholes and clay,
most people walked or cycled
and even strangers said, ‘gidday’.

Our weatherboard house peeled
the corrugated tin roof leaked too,
a verandah sagged under honeysuckle,
the rooms added as family grew.

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

Electricity brightened inside the house
so torch or candlelight had to suffice
night noises and shadows of the bush
and the smelly dunny was not nice!

The path to the toilet lined with trees
growing tall to seek the sun
but when the dark cloak of night donned
branches became hands from which to run

During the day our block was heaven
definitely a children’s adventure-land
blue tongues, geckos, tadpoles and frogs
all shared our world so grand.

A snake the greatest danger
or a bull ant bite on the toe
a truly carefree wonderful time
my rose-coloured glasses show.

I also read Sammar Bassal’s haiku because she was too bashful to read it herself.

The poem and tile great representations of how the library was her home as she struggled to learn English and find a place in her adopted country.

A design student, Sammar’s tile detailed all these wonderful fantasy characters emerging from an open book.

Home away from home
Surrounded by written words
The library has gone

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October is a month when Victoria celebrates seniors and the City of Kingston’s Seniors Festival has the theme ‘Get Social’ encouraging everyone to be involved and feel part of their local community.

Involvement in the Intergenerational project and exhibition, visiting the Westall Hub for the first time and meeting up with many new people during the course of a wonderful, learning opportunity was not only social but fun.

Kingston is a proudly diverse city, with residents coming from more than 150 countries, speaking 120 languages and following more than 28 different faiths. Council is committed to helping foster an accepting and inclusive community, regardless of anyone’s origin, ethnicity, faith, economic status, disability, age, gender or sexual orientation.

Cr. Steve Staikos, Mayor, City of Kingston.

Whatever the intergenerational project is next year, watch out for it and participate – you won’t regret it.

Here are a couple of pics of some of the seniors involved plus Sammar and the Mayor ‘getting social’.

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Politicians and Poetry – Both Nonsensical Today

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The above quote by Sir Winston Churchill played out today as Australia’s Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull was finally removed by the internal bickering of his own political party!

This is the second time he has lost the leadership and of course, he has done the same to opponents, notably former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, which I wrote about in a previous post in 2015.

I wrote about being glued to the television news coverage and being a political junkie – well the last few days have been deja vu!

Malcolm Turnbull smarter than Tony Abbott, or just a better tactician, pre-empted an assassination attempt, but after a torturous few days for the public,  finally lost and Scott Morrison is now the 30th prime minister of Australia.

Poetry A Good Outlet To Express Feelings

There’s an old saying – if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry… I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling frustrated, bewildered, and angry at the behaviour of the current Liberal politicians and the latest stunt really is beyond belief considering there are so many important issues the voters are worried about…

However, laughter can be the best medicine – or playing with words and writing silly verses can get rid of the anger.

Humour works well in poems, many poets use irony. Repetition and rhyme are great tools too. Added to rhythm and choosing a great subject you could be on a winner like Dr Seuss!

I certainly enjoyed myself manipulating words and making up limericks and clerihews about the hapless lot currently masquerading as our government. Some are unprintable.

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The Muppet Show @ZanettiCartoons

Canberra’s Shenanigans Fodder for Cartoonists but also Poets

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A Limerick is a rhymed humorous or nonsense poem of five lines which originated in Limerick, Ireland. The Limerick has a set rhyme scheme of :

a-a-b-b-a with a syllable structure of: 9-9-6-6-9.

The rhythm of the poem should go as follows: Lines 1, 2, 5: weak, weak, STRONG, weak, weak, STRONG, weak, weak, STRONG, weak, weak Lines 3, 4: weak, weak, STRONG, weak, weak, STRONG, weak, weak…

Part of the charm of the limerick is the surprise, the sudden swoop and unexpected twist of the last line. Like the nursery rhyme, many limericks attack the authority of the church, lampoon politicians and are great outlets for protest.

Limericks Record a Week of Political Lunacy
Mairi Neil

Liberal MPs are rogue again
flushing their PM down the drain
up to power-grab tricks
these self-absorbed pricks
behave as if they are all insane

Malcolm Turnbull has said his ‘Goodbye’
was it only yesterday he said, ‘Hi’?
LNP politics rough
you have to be so tough
‘Cos their loyalty’s in short supply

‘Jobs & Growth’ a slogan, not reality
like all Libs Mal lacks mendacity
a Top Hat forever
his spins are quite clever
Pity he lacks political morality

Tony Abbott always lurked up the back
unforgiving for getting the sack
revenge best served up cold
Biding time to be bold
Then use Dutton to lead an attack

Dud Dutton mistimed Tony’s planned coup
this decision supporters will rue
many thought they had won
dirty deed all but done
till the numbers reduced to a few!

And like Judas, ScoMo can betray
volunteering to save Turnball’s day
with his hyena-like smile
he has prayed for awhile
and been lying in wait for his prey.

Bishop’s catwalks will now be the past
Poor Julie has deputised her last
intimidating stare
and her fixating glare
all gone when her power lunge crashed

Vic MP Greg Hunt rates a mention
No obvious crude rhyme my intention
suffice let me just say
he’s a rat by the way
and deserves careful close attention.

Small ‘l’ Liberals today were trounced
the results of the ballot announced
Dutton’s supporters lost
stability the cost
methinks dastardly deals made with Faust

Josh Freydenberg, ScoMo’s deputy
that may be a strain on fidelity
is there love in his soul
for the mining of coal –
or NEG disappear, plus integrity?

Whoever you vote for, be warned
Peoples’ choices too often scorned
In Canberra’s bubble
Egos foment trouble
Integrity frequently deformed.

What about all those Labor pollies
Scarred by the memory of follies
Libs continually try
But Bill Shorten won’t die
Perhaps that sent them off their trolleys!

quote about politics

 

You Too Can Clerihew

A Clerihew (or clerihew) is a very specific kind of short humorous verse, typically with the following properties:

  • It is biographical and usually whimsical, showing the subject from an unusual point of view;
  • but it is hardly ever satirical, abusive or obscene;
  • It has four lines of irregular length (for comic effect);
  • The first line consists solely (or almost solely) of a well-known person’s name.

PM Malcolm Turnbull
must feel a bit of a fool
thought he had power
but his party turned sour

Scott Morrison won
leadership squabbles no fun
reflecting on the past
he must wonder will it last?

Ex-cop Peter Dutton
Should order some mutton
like potatoes, he’s mashed
prime ministerial hopes smashed.

Labor’s Bill Shorten
votes must be sortin’
perhaps three-word slogans seeking
‘ScoMo must go’ worth tweaking

Clerihews are funny poems you write about specific people and you don’t have to worry about counting syllables or words, and you don’t even have to worry about the rhythm of the poem.

You don’t have to limit yourself to writing clerihews about people you know. You can write clerihews about people you have never met but it works best if you write about someone who is well known, or who at least is known to your readers/audience.

Politicians and celebrities ideal!

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Hollywood Mel Gibson’s home
Where many Aussies like to roam
Mad Max and Braveheart a winning streak
Pity his true character’s so bleak

But you don’t have to limit your clerihews to real people. You can write about characters from books, movies, comics, and cartoons.

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Poems can have many different purposes, e.g. to amuse, to entertain, to reflect, to convey information, to tell a story, to share knowledge or to pass on cultural heritage. Some forms of poetry are associated with certain purposes, e.g. prayers to thank, celebrate, praise; advertising jingles to persuade; limericks to amuse.

Some of the most satisfying lessons I have are when we try different types of poetry in class. Not all the students agree with me or even like poetry but they always make tremendous efforts and write amazing poems!

Splurge Dirge

Mairi Neil

Let’s agree poetry is a way
for words to live in print
Wordsmiths have their say

Sometimes it’s a bit of fun
doggerel, childish ditties,
satire, irony, – even a pun

Practicality can be boring
romance is better in verse
poetry sets emotion soaring

Memories collect and grow
nostalgia breeds a poem
subverting what we know!

Terse verse a picture paints
limericks, clerihews, lunes
ridicules sinners and saints

Messages in greeting cards galore
Quatrains, rhymes, free verse
jingles, psalms, songs and more.

I can’t imagine poetry’s demise
this wonderful chameleon genre
Its devices will always surprise

I have a wonderful student who has been coming to my classes for more than 18 years – she is now 89 years old. I love her poetry, her attitude toward life and treasure the poems she has written about me!

Limericks & Rhyme

Heather Yourn

There once was a tutor called Neil
Who fervently made an appeal
To all in her class
To get off their backsides
And write with some fervour and zeal

It’s hard to write in rhyming verse
When one is used to prose
But when your tutor suggests you try
You had better – I suppose.

There once was a bard from Avon
Whom many have thought a right con
Some said he wrote verse
But others were terse
Claiming he’d never catch on.

Poking Fun At Pollies
Heather Yourn

Poor old Bronwyn bit the dust
After that chopper ride
Even Abbott deserted her
But no-one even cried.

Mr Palmer’s very rich
He always ate big meals
Bit off more than he could chew
With dubious mineral deals.

Malcolm Turnbull goes by tram
Anyone know why?
Even Google is nonplussed
As certainly am I.

Malcolm was Republican
Until the Hard Right to a man
Forced him in another mould.
Now he does as he is told.

That last stanza of Heather’s written in 2016 – insightful!

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Form Poetry Can be Fun

I usually teach poetry by introducing various forms first – templates and structures help people if they have never tried to write poetry or have a fixed idea of what poetry ‘should be’.

Take a TRIOLET

A triolet is an eight line poem or stanza with a set rhyme scheme. Line four and line seven are the same as line one, and line eight is the same as line two. The rhyme scheme is ABaAabAB.

  • line 1 – A
  • line 2 – B
  • 
line 3 – a
  • 
line 4 – A (line 1)
  • line 5 – a
  • 
line 6 – b
  • 
line 7 – A (line 1)
  • 
line 8 – B (line 2)

ad nauseam

Here is my wonderful Heather again… commenting on our class attempting Triolets from visual prompts…

Triolet Torture

Heather Yourn

This here is a Triolet
Stuff the guy who thought them up
A masochistic fool I bet
This here is a Triolet
Just as well we never met
‘cos on his ‘brains’ I’d sup
This here is a Triolet
Stuff the guy who thought them up

Tori’s got the chicken card
I don’t think that’s fair
How can I be champion bard?
Tori’s got the chicken card
I am trying really hard
Pulling each grey hair
Tori’s got the chicken card
I don’t think that’s fair.

Everyone’s still writing
Furrowed brows the deal
Too engaged for chatting
Everyone’s still writing
Are their rhyme fish biting
to please dear Mairi Neil
Everyone’s still writing
Furrowed brows the deal

And because this post is about politics and poetry I’ll end with one of mine and perhaps a message to ‘that mob in Canberra’ who are so entitled and ego-driven they have forgotten why they are there!

Distraught Democracy
A Triolet
Mairi Neil

Democracy requires some thought
The right to vote so dearly won.
Truth and Integrity can’t be bought
Democracy requires some thought
Election promises with lies fraught
Politicians desperately seek the sun
Democracy requires some thought
The right to vote so dearly won!

No doubt there will be an election sooner rather than later and we can get the chance to vote and teach them a lesson!

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Winter Discontent Hints At Spring

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I woke up this morning with a list of writing tasks to do:

  • Three classes start next week, so lessons to plan
  • Sharing information about a delightful weekend where I caught the last day of the Gandhi Exhibition at the Immigration Museum and the Barangaroo Ngangamay celebration for NAIDOC in the Community Gallery
  • Plus a book review to finish for Lisa Hill’s wonderful celebration of Indigenous Literature she holds each year during July
  • A review of the fantastic Viking Exhibition at the Melbourne Museum where the girls took me on Mother’s Day (Yep, I’m that far behind in my To Do List!)
  • And an update about the ABC after attending a great rally at Melbourne Town Hall yesterday chaired by the accomplished and internationally famous journalist Professor  Peter Greste
  • More about my travels last year – especially Russia
  • The first assignment for a MOOC I’ve enrolled in at the University of Iowa on Moving the Margins: Fiction & Inclusion
  • Plus poems and short stories to finish, revisit and edit…

Help, I need another holiday or to go on a retreat…

A Moment of Joy…

However, all plans disappeared when I drew back the curtains and noticed my Bird of Paradise had started blooming – one of the most colourful and striking plants in the world it belongs to the plant family Strelitziaceae and I just love it.

The plant was in the garden when we bought the house in 1984 and has survived droughts, renovations, a flood, and thrip invasion.

This winter has been particularly cold – everyone I speak to agrees so it is not just grouchy arthritic me – and saying it’s cold means something considering I’m from Scotland!

But being greeted by my delightful Bird of Paradise almost in full flower warmed me up from the inside out!

In pyjamas, I rushed out to take a few photos.

Inspired, I even wrote a poem – nothing like attempting a bit of poetry (even if it is twee) to get the brain in gear on a chilly morning after a turn around the garden checking what else is in bloom.

trees minus grevillea

Mid Winter Morn in Mordialloc

Mairi Neil

Sunlight struggles to glimmer
in the dull convict-grey sky
any warmth still chained to
clumps of cloud drifting by

A faint frost skins patchy grass
soon to be melted or crunched away,
the day frozen – not quite five degrees
oh, winter please disappear today!

Imagine soft, distant, mauve clouds
hovering over a smooth, azure sea
farewelling the night edging inland
the tired fishing boats now work-free.

Birds scrabble nearby for scarce crumbs
nectar hard to find this time of year
they flap, swoop, chitter and chatter
loud demands still music to the ear.

Winter time a challenge for us all –
come on, spring, make life brighter
when flowers bloom in rainbows
our hearts and steps much lighter.

Red and pink geraniums smile amid
myriad green leaves begging for room –
daisies dance a welcome at the gate
rosemary always remembers to bloom

The beautiful Bird of Paradise flowers,
to hint that mythical Eden does exist
its orange and blue finery ready to fly
to tropical garden and romantic tryst.

Nature’s beauty  a welcome surprise
even in winter. Each splendid new day
bulbs grow and blossom without fanfare
a reminder the spring’s never far away!

Welcome Signs of Spring

Looking closely at the plants the signs of spring are there. Buds beginning to form on the camellia –

camelia buds july 18

but later it was the behaviour of a Magpie I spied out of the window that fascinated me.

magpie flying

I’ve written about the dislocation of many of the local birds because so many trees (their homes) have been removed as Mordialloc’s housing boom continues. The changes have disoriented several magpie families who have been living in the area.

Magpies build large, domed nests in thorny bushes or high up in tall trees using found objects and whatever they can collect for their nests.

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They are a protected species under Australian law and it is illegal to kill them but destroying their homes is obviously not considered illegal – yet the quickest way to destroy a species is to get rid of their habitat!

Magpies mate for life and normally stay together for their entire lives. They mate during springtime when the weather begins to get warmer. That’s usually when they build their large nests.

However, I watched as an industrious Magpie tore strips off an old coir mat and gathered as much material as possible in his/her beak before flying off to distant trees.

The spectacle totally engrossing for several minutes – how he/she managed to keep collecting more material in its beak without losing any amazing.

When I think how I fumble to pick up and grip stuff with hands and fingers yet birds make the most intricate of nests, woven out of a range of natural or man-made materials with mainly their beaks.

They truly are amazing creatures!

I’m sure Mr/s Magpie was gathering for a nest and not food although in winter they eat more plant material, wild fruits, berries and grains, supplemented with household scraps and food scavenged from bird tables, chicken runs, even pet food bowls.

But all bird experts say we should not feed them – especially not bread – no doubt I will do penance in the afterlife for those years of throwing out breadcrumbs when I first moved here!

Like Australian Ravens, Magpies also eat carrion and catch small mammals and birds. In the wild, Magpies prey on larger animals such as young rabbits but with urbanisation despite the destruction of habitat I don’t think they’ll go hungry and so won’t be hunting pet rabbits.

Delights, Distractions but now must ‘Do’…

While exotic plants and paving stones might make gardens appear neat and tidy, scientific advisors suggest cultivating a wilder and more natural environment benefits birds and butterflies.

This appeals to me. I try to plant as many indigenous trees and plants as possible – less maintenance and figure they’ll survive the vagaries of the weather better and hopefully help and encourage native birds.

I have very Noisy Minors who visit daily and manage to drown out the Magpies carolling. The Noisy Minors raid the Bottlebrushes vacuuming up what’s left of the nectar or any insect foolish enough to be caught.

Loss of habitat through global warming is also posing a major threat to wildlife around the world, with some studies predicting that every 1C rise will cause the eventual loss of 10 per cent of all species. (Hard to believe colder winters are in fact probably indicative of global warming as the seasons change…)

Anyway, no apologies for pausing and capturing my garden and the antics of birds on film or in words.

We writers must take inspiration where we find it and nurture the muse, especially when it is as lethargic as mine – or maybe the word is lazy!

Ah, yes, back to that list…

Mordialloc beach in winter-PANO

 

Corruption Unnoticed Is Corruption Unchecked – We Need Effective Journalists

journalist Walter Robinson

At the end of May, I went to Melbourne University to hear the AN Smith Memorial Lecture sponsored by Melbourne University’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, School of Culture and Communication, part of the Faculty of Arts. They always have interesting speakers but this year, especially so, because it was Walter “Robby” Robinson from the Boston Globe.

Most of us were first introduced to Robby through the movie Spotlight – his character played by Michael Keaton. The Boston Globe is the newspaper that disclosed the systemic sexual abuse of children within the Catholic Church in the Boston Diocese and the culture of protecting paedophile priests by the hierarchy of that church.

The topic relevant in today’s Australia (and indeed throughout the world) after the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse set up by the Gillard Government and a redress scheme for the survivors currently being negotiated by the Turnbull Government.

talk at mlb uni introducing Robbie

Introduced as a journalist whose career has spanned 34 countries, 48 out of 50 of the United States while working under four different presidents and covering one and a half wars, Robbie looked suitably humble as an eager audience applauded a long and loud welcome.

He began by stating that Boston and Melbourne were sister cities. When there was little reaction he said, ‘Am I the only one who knows that?’ which provoked laughter. (I must admit I didn’t know that!)

Can democracy survive without a strong aggressive press?

Before coming here, he researched Melbourne and read about our ex-mayor. He remembered an interview with Doyle in the USA a few years ago when he encouraged tourists by suggesting when Americans visit they have a great time with their credit cards. With sarcasm, Robbie said, ‘That alone is a good reason to go back to cash.

He acknowledged and praised three Australian journalists in the room who had exposed child abuse: Louise Milligan, Joanne McCartney and Paul Kennedy.

He had hopes and fears for journalism and the future of democracy which “works well for everyone if  journalism works well for everyone.” He believed the suppression laws against the Australian Press are too oppressive.

free-press-quote-from-churchill

He had been interviewed and asked to comment on the case of Archbishop Wilson and because it was still before the courts declined to refer to him by name. He was glad Archbishop Wilson was found guilty but unfortunately, the comment he made about him going to prison produced an ABC headline that did not match his careful comments.

It was corrected a couple of days later after he complained but Robby believes the initial reporting is symptomatic of headlines being used as click-bait or sensationalism!

For him, holding the powerful accountable for their actions and the truth is the responsibility of good journalists.

Currently, the Pope and USA President suggest they are both humble men – we know this by the Pope’s actions and the fact the President tells us repeatedly.

(Muted laughter followed this comment and I think it would be reasonable to say finding a supporter for Trump in the room would be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack!)

The Boston Globe and Spotlight

Robby then launched into an explanation of the investigation he is most famous for and the background/inspiration to the film Spotlight.

He asserted there was an international conspiracy in covering up child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church – right up to the Pope and powerful others.

There is an international conspiracy regarding Trump but in his eyes, it is caused by the journalists and investigators being stubborn about seeking the truth.

  • Catholicism is a major religion in the USA and Australia. About 20% of the population identify as Catholics but not all go to church.
  • In 1972, Robby covered the Vietnam War but the horror of the Spotlight story won’t leave him alone –
  • he discovered there is evil within the Catholic Church and frequently that Church will do something to replenish this. His sense of outrage is never exhausted!
  • When men working in the Lord’s shadow cast children into hell there is not ‘two sides to every story’.
  • Accountability is now being taken up to high authority in Australia but not in the USA. In the USA the system is overly deferential to the powerful.
  • 2002 – the story broke following five months chipping at a granite wall because the Roman Catholic church had ready access to all levels of political power.
  • They were able to make documents disappear from court files. They sat on the shoulders of the Boston elite because in Boston half the population is nominally Catholic.

quote about tyranny

The journalists accessed 10,000 pages on the one priest – Father John Geoghan, the main subject of Spotlight the movie. Once it was available, within two weeks 105 victims came forward, 400 were in the shadows.

It was revealed Geoghan had been shuffled to six parishes in 30 years!

This proved the Church’s first priority was to avoid public scandal.

Nowhere in the 10,000 pages of reports was there one mention of the children’s welfare. The Church never called the police.

The children didn’t matter!

Documents revealed 10.8% of priests were reported in 60 years – over 250 priests in Boston had molested children. Robby believes if, in any diocese, there is under 8% reported then a cover-up is still happening!

  • The Cardinal of Boston knew the predators but let them stay as priests until retirement. Bishops and Cardinals internationally all play from the same script.
  • There are reciprocal arrangements to send priests elsewhere.
  • They are expert at hiding abuse and protecting priests.

It is refreshing to see Australia is calling to account those in power who knew. He is following Archbishop Pell’s case closely.

When the Boston Globe covered the story it was the dawn of the Internet Age, their stories went viral and victims from all around the country and the world telephoned or emailed them – even from Australia

Pre 2002 there was no wildfire – the power of the Internet got the story noticed nationally and internationally, immediately.

Technology precipitated and has participated in journalism’s financial free fall.

Yes, the Internet spread the story but the Internet has damaged investigative journalism. In the first redundancies, staff went from 550 to 500, the second round another 30 went, and another buy out of the Boston Globe will reduce its size more.

Links in the chain are missing now when it comes to reporting. Many jobs like the court reporting jobs don’t exist. It was the court reporter that first alerted the team to the story.

However, the Spotlight Team initially were four reporters, now they are eleven, including two editors.

Their story showed that people value investigative reporting more than anything – even sport. Readers want reporting that holds the powerful accountable!

quote about leadership

The Boston Globe owner is a billionaire. He doesn’t want to make a profit but he’s also not into losing money. Since the Internet half of the journalistic jobs have vanished 25,000 reporters gone.

Along, Came Trump…

“He speaks with conviction, knowing nothing, and without saying anything.”

The tradition of The Anonymous Source is important – we learned that other unstable world leader cancelled the summit (and then it was on again).

November 2016 when Trump started to attack the New York Times and other papers claiming fake news they had one and a half million digital subscribers – now it is 3 million – people want to read a paper they can trust.

Obama used the Espionage Act to flush out whistleblowers but blinked to protect press freedom. Trump thinks journalists are scum – he may not blink!

  • He marginalises and demonises journalists.
  • He is going after Amazon because the owner of Amazon owns the Washington Post
  • He reads fewer books than other presidents have written.
  • Winston Churchill said a free press dangerous – not for ordinary citizens!
  • Lying is the message of Putin and Trump –  lie blatantly to assert power over truth itself.
  • Remember Trump had the crowd yell ‘you lock them up’ or ‘lock Hillary up’ – his mantra
  • It is the role of the press to protect the public from the excesses of government, not the role of government to protect the supposed excesses of journalism.

Warren Buffett has predicted printed newspapers will vanish; home delivered papers will be as rare as buggy whips.

Quality over Quantity

Remember the four characteristics of media writing

  1. accuracy
  2. completeness
  3. efficiency
  4. precision
  • Robby fears the quality of a lot of online journalism – it’s about generating clicks and contains a lot of spin…
  • In the USA the First Amendment has lost some of its lustre
  • The Globe doesn’t cover court cases anymore yet that was the origin of the Spotlight investigation.
  • The Cable News Network attractive to the public yet dangerous if the only source of news

He believes in a future for investigative reporting but will it do any good can they breathe life into a calcifying democracy?

Democracy is in decline, people are taking freedom for granted.

In the American 2016 Election, 93,047,000 didn’t show up and of 183 million who voted many were ill-informed.

Image result for when integrity dies within a person

Corruption Unnoticed is Corruption Unchecked

end of talk at melb uni 1

Louise Milligan one of the journalists from the ABC who has reported on child abuse in Australia asked about the confidentiality of the White House briefing. When things are said ‘in confidence’ to a room full of journalists why aren’t they reported when they are in the public’s interest?

Robby admitted that it started with Kissinger under Nixon and ‘everybody hates it’.  A horrible tradition. It is a way for senior officials to share whatever secrets or knowledge they have and they’re worried about.  But they won’t say it in public – and no journalist will break the tradition – apart from the ‘anonymous Whitehouse spokesperson’ perhaps …

A journalism student asked: Has paedophilia within the church stopped or is the next generation carrying it on?

Robby gave an example of Brazil.

Ten times as many priests were exposed in Boston than Brazil, yet compare those numbers to the size of the Catholic Church and population in Brazil.

The current Pope who is South American took steps regarding the Bishops in Chile but there are many Catholic countries where nothing has been done yet.

This Pope is determined to get the Bishops out of their limousines and the Cardinals out of their Cadillacs but will he be prepared to clean out every single bishop and archbishop?

The Effects of Writing About Child Abuse Do Not Go away

How do you protect yourself from second-hand trauma when reporting on a case like this?  

Robby’s answer, ‘Not well!’ 

His wife, a nurse, and she believes the Spotlight team all suffered PTSD. He is still affected emotionally by the stories – he couldn’t relate one tonight because he knew he would break down.  “Maybe I should see a counsellor.”

His honesty about the stress and emotional pain of investigating and reporting the story important to share.  I often wonder about the journalists who cover horrific murders or war and disaster stories. There are some images or experiences you can never forget. How do you return to normal life?

Another student asked a question about Rupert Murdoch and Fox News, which is increasingly a mouthpiece for the Whitehouse and Trump.

Robby’s suggestion,  “People should wean themselves off cable news!”  It is corrupt and they are a powerful potent force. They don’t report news but tell stories and have stories about the news…

If you want to improve journalism and keep it alive you must support the newspapers who still do their job.

I checked my old journalist course notes from when I did my Masters in Writing:

Broadcast news emphasizes the superficial rather than the substantive.  It’s too short and too shallow.  Pictures or audio drive the story.  Critics say broadcast news reporters often pick out the sensational or the most unusual aspect of a story to emphasize rather than what is the most important. “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Broadcast news writers depend on clichés rather than information, particularly to end their stories. Many reporters find an ending that says in effect, “Who knows?” or “We’ll have to wait and see” convenient for ending a story.

For years, the reporter who covered the Supreme Court for National Public Radio would end her stories about cases before the court by saying, “A decision is expected by next summer.” That sentence – besides containing a passive verb construction – tells us nothing since most Supreme Court cases are decided before the court recesses for the summer.

It Takes Resources To Pay Good Investigative Journalists

Robby subscribes to the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and he suggests when you read The Guardian send them money like he does. (This got a large round of applause!)

Robby teaches journalism and has done for the last ten years

He believes there will always be good jobs for good students and he finds his students are excited about the digital age and the different platforms available. They are hopeful and not surrounded by doom and gloom.

It used to be when people came to the Newsroom, the old hands taught the new reporters, now it is the young ones teaching all the old Journos  the new technology!

Information in a free society is a valuable commodity the next generation will monetise it.

When asked if the Pope is a reforming pope, Robby said he thinks the Pope is wanting to bring an end to clerical culture, the person must come first and he is trying to get the church elite out of their limousine lifestyles.

But change within a church or a religion takes generations and Robby fears it will never make it in several lifetimes.

He is a Catholic and he thought he’d be buried by the church but he is very much a lapsed Catholic and now a golf tragic…

An interesting lecture providing great discussion points for conversation on the way home.

And considering our own ABC, which provides remarkable examples of investigative journalism, is under threat, and yet again, we have The Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill, tightening laws regarding whistleblowing, protesting and data retention – the word that springs to mind is vigilance!

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A Visit to Hotel Sorrento A Must For Writers

hotel sorrento program.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

lena's friend's BIO.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Life sucks’, says Pippa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

quoted from an Essay by Cate Kennedy 2015

The Writer’s Craft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stagecraft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Willsmere Beauty Transforms A Beastly Past

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On Sunday, March 4th, I was privileged to visit Willsmere in Kew and participate in a Heritage Walk with a resident as our guide.  This 25-acre site including buildings is now a beautiful community of apartments and gardens.

Referred to as the ‘lunatic asylum” Willsmere was converted and developed in 1993, but with the proviso that certain areas of the heritage listed site are opened to the public twice a year.

The former Kew Lunatic Asylum was built in 1872 during a period when several large public buildings were constructed after the gold rush enriched many people and the Colonial Government. Victoria was an independent state (hence the flag outside Willsmere today) and the authorities promoted the idea of an asylum to “portray Melbourne as a civilized and benevolent city.’

The building displays the influence of Europe with the architects GW Vivian and Frederick Kawerau creating Italianate and the French Second Empire buildings. There are two distinct entrances flanking the main door, one each for male and female inmates who were always separated. Inside they had separate exercise yards as well as wards and cells.

Many historical details remain and the effort to retain architectural features, including paint schemes, brickwork, tiles, wooden window surrounds, doors and balustrades make it an interesting site to access.  

I have volunteered for several years at Open House Melbourne and was thrilled to receive the invitation as a thank you gift for being part of the team. The Open House Movement is worldwide and a wonderful addition to Melbourne’s community calendar.

 I encourage everyone to set aside the last weekend in July to learn more about Melbourne and its buildings. (Last year the program extended to Ballarat so mark the last weekend in October too!)

Many of the buildings listed for Open House don’t have a museum (like Willsmere) but most provide historical information and/or context that makes visiting memorable.

History Attached to Willsmere

As a history buff, I love learning about old buildings. Willsmere has links to the architecture of colonial times but there is much more to uncover because it was built for a specific purpose.

My mother did “mental nursing” as it was called in the 1940s, and I recall her stories about how shocking it was that people with epilepsy were locked away and treated as ‘lunatics’ along with those with a psychiatric illness.  She nursed alongside my father’s older sister Mary in the epileptic colony of the Orphan Homes of Scotland.

I grew up with parents who were experienced, understanding, and compassionate and over the years I witnessed Mum providing a cup of tea and listening ear to several people recovering from breakdowns or bouts of mental ill health.

Delving into the history of places like Willsmere reminds us that even with the best intentions a society can go down a terrible path through ignorance.

Famous Patients

In a brochure about Willsmere, three famous patients are listed with the barest of details and I am sure their full stories would involve serious heartbreak and trauma. They were probably paying patients too.

  • Thomas Wentworth “Tom” Wills, (August 1835 – May 1880). He was an Australian sportsman credited with being the first cricketer of significance and a pioneer of Australian Rules football.
  • Edward De Lacy Evans who was born Ellen Tremayne or Tremaye. (? 1830 – August 1901) A servant, blacksmith and gold miner, who immigrated from Ireland to Australia in 1856, and made international news in 1879 when it was revealed he was a woman.
  • George Henry Stevens “Harry” Trott (August 1866 – November 1917). An Australian Test Cricketer committed to Kew Asylum after a series of seizures. Eventually discharged, he returned to play cricket for Victoria between 1888 and 1898.

Everyone in the asylum had a category: male/female, paying/pauper, manageable/refractory… the latter put into punishment cells that even with doors permanently open will make you shudder.

Kew Asylum

The museum established to preserve the history of the Kew Asylum and Willsmere Mental Hospital is a sobering place. Credit must be given to Central Equity Ltd., the developers for providing funding to preserve this part of our heritage.

The archive comprises over 60 objects salvaged during the redevelopment of the site, plus reproductions of historical documents, plans, and photographs.

 

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A cargo tank. Thousands of these tanks were used to carry water, hops, fruit, biscuits, bread and other produce from England to the colonies. They were reused as water tanks often in mines and country buildings. By 1876 Kew had 68 tanks installed in the towers to provide tap water.

 

The museum is a gallery, some bedrooms and an old day room converted to a library. The area, originally Ward A-A, which housed female private patients who had a view across the Yarra towards the city – whether this taunted or relaxed the women we may never know, but certainly, some of the equipment like the machine for electric shock therapy, hint at the barbaric treatment of earlier days.

One of the largest asylums in the world, the Kew Mental Asylum symbolised Victoria’s civic confidence after the gold rush. It was anticipated that being ‘sent to Kew’ would cure the mentally ill, through humane conditions, a moral environment, routine work and medical treatment.

Enlightenment principles were applied to the treatment of mental illness. “Lunatics” were placed in new asylums where illnesses of the mind would be cured by a scientific approach…Unfortunately, Kew never lived up to these benevolent intentions. Few patients were ever cured and released into the community…Kew was subject to repeated public criticism leading to a Royal Commission in 1876… conditions and morale were low…

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Within years of construction, Kew was condemned as a failure. Governments never provided sufficient funding to prevent overcrowding or employ sufficient staff. (Now isn’t that a familiar story!!)

As a result, many patients simply locked away until their death. The Royal Commission declared:

For a large percentage of our insane population we are quite sure no restraint is necessary, and yet they are all confined together under a system that must be monotonous and oppressive.

In the 1950s, Dr E. Cunningham Dax, director of the Mental Hygiene Authority, initiated a series of reforms to make conditions more tolerable. Kew Asylum gradually converted into Willsmere Mental Hospital, specialising in the care of the aged, including patients with Alzheimer’s Disease.

 

willsmere photos of patients
Thousands of patients and staff called the asylum home in its 117 years history. Up to 1000 patients at a time resident – some for a few days, others a lifetime. The Medical Superintendent had his own residence, many staff slept in the wards with their patients. Every patient was photographed on submission.

 

The paintwork, lighting and floor coverings in the museum area are typical of the Willsmere Hospital when it closed in 1988.

Female patients lived in the northern half of the building, men lived in identical southern wings. On both sides of the Asylum, paupers were housed apart from paying patients, and the difficult inmates were confined to the wards at the back near the kitchens and laundry.

Life on The Wards

Patients were encouraged to take part in activities that gave structure to their day and considered therapeutic. Some worked on the asylum’s farm, which included an orchard, fowl house, 200 pigs, 30 cows and extensive vegetable gardens.

Others worked in the laundry, kitchen or workshops, sewed clothes and made cushions, cared for fellow patients, or assembled components for outside firms. Social activities were held when staffing permitted, such as dancing, music and games on the cricket field built by the asylum community.

A staff psychiatrist from the 1920s recalled the ‘daily scene of desolation and despair’:

Most of the patients were on the airing courts walking backwards and forwards in solitary perambulation, untidily huddled together in groups like resting sheep, or isolated and stationary, looking into space as though they were held in the crystal of a dream.”

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Willsmere constitutes a rare, mostly intact, 19th-century lunatic asylum and is still an architectural Melbourne landmark above the Yarra Bend Park.  At one time it was the highest constructed point in Melbourne with the site considered suitable for Government House but dismissed by early colonists as too isolated.

Walking around you get the sense of its height and the slope of the grounds. There’s the necessity for stairs to access some apartments from the outside as well as internally.

The design included “ha-ha” walls. These retained a view without the feeling of being enclosed.  The height of these brick walls deceptive being built at an angle at the bottom making them impossible to scale.

I was fortunate to be part of the smallest group shown through Willsmere that morning. Jack, an extremely well-versed resident was our guide. Knowledgeable and a longtime Open House volunteer, he explained about the conversion of the site into a modern community of apartments and townhouses. Every sentence he spoke laced with well-deserved pride. The surroundings show love and care and the shared facilities remarkable.

The restoration work tastefully done. Red painted doorways, windows and other features are restored or new versions of the original design. Green painted features are new additions, such as the entrances to many of the apartments.

The modern concrete paths were built during the redevelopment because originally, patients and staff used the covered walkways, now converted into verandahs.

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Gardens of Trees, Flowers, and More Trees

I fell in love with the gardens, especially the trees, some of which are on a heritage list too. There is an ancient peppercorn which may be one of the oldest surviving trees left in suburban Melbourne. It is as old as Willsmere.

How many thousands of feet tramped past this gnarled trunk, how many people sat in its shade, praying, relaxing, contemplating life and death?

Male patients and staff played lawn games from 1878 and the bowling green was rebuilt by the Lawn Bowls and Greenkeepers Association as a gift to the hospital in the 1950s. There was also a cricket oval north of the asylum walls during the 1870s.

Today there is a communal barbecue area, a swimming pool, a tennis court and paths crisscrossing lawns providing lovely walks for residents to play and walk.

Jack put the conversion of this site in perspective when he said there are about 800 residents on this 25-acre site in beautiful surroundings which encourage community and a healthy lifestyle.

He pointed to the other side of the Yarra River where there is a proposed development of an old industrial site of similar acreage. The planned capacity is 2000! I can imagine the future residents of that development will look at the 1990s as a golden age.

How to Get to Willsmere

 It was a difficult but not impossible trek by public transport for me, especially on a Sunday, which explains why the email invite said ‘not suitable access via public transport’.

However, I’ve never driven or owned a car and believe ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’  –  or I’d have limited outings and adventures!

Metro’s My Journey and double-checking with Google Maps works well for public transport. I caught a train from Mordialloc to Melbourne Central where I had a choice of two buses leaving close by and dropping me at different streets off the Chandler Highway.

One bus route offered a walk of 1.5km (19 mins) and the other 1.8km (23 mins). Therefore it’s approximately a twenty-minute walk to Willsmere once you get off the bus – mainly uphill if trusting Google where you find yourself at an entrance not accessible to the general public!

I reread the email I received and realised I should have keyed in a different entrance gate. Just as well it was a gorgeous day and an interesting walk through a suburb regarded as ‘well-to-do’.  Definitely not poverty row and the housing development tastefully done, even keeping the original entrance wall to what was once the Kew Gardens.

I chose the bus heading for Box Hill Station going and a different one returning to the city.   However, heading home I had the benefit of residents’ know-how with a more direct route to the bus stop. There is no substitute for local knowledge – even better than a combination of Google Maps and Metro Journey Planner!

A pleasant, mildly undulating, treed walk to catch the alternative bus took me past the site of where Kew Children’s Cottages used to be. This stirred up memories of visiting there as a teenager in the 1960s.

Kew Cottages

As part of Croydon Uniting Church’s outreach program, my Sunday School teacher, Mr Alabaster organised for our group to each be assigned “a child” to take home for an afternoon to share the experience of a family meal.

We hadn’t lived long in Australia and had no idea the “Children” at Kew included adults. The young man we entertained as he devoured Mum’s scones was closer to 25 than 15.

I have vivid memories of Trevor who was dressed in brand new clothes, including a black vinyl jacket and tan trousers plus polished black leather shoes. No doubt he was told to be on his best behaviour but he couldn’t help boasting about his clothes.

When we picked him up it was the first time I had ever been inside an institution for people with a mental disability and it was confronting. Trevor was spruced up, but those left behind wandering the corridors and grounds not so nicely dressed or as politely behaved.

explanation of cottage sytsem at KEW

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I remember a conversation Dad had with Trevor that still makes me smile.

‘What do you do during the day, Trevor?’

“I have a job.”

“That’s wonderful, son. What’s your job?”

“I drive my truck and take all the bottles to be recycled.”

Dad was gobsmacked and sat bolt upright in his Jason Recliner. An ex-truck driver, he knew a thing or two about trucks. “You drive a truck? How big is it.”

Trevor sat still and silent as he contemplated his answer. Then he opted to indicate with his arms and a description. We worked out Trevor’s truck was red and, in fact, a four-wheeled cart he pulled and steered with a swivelled handle.

Dad relaxed and asked Trevor what music he liked!

There were several scandals regarding the treatment of disabled children in care and the Kew Cottages parents’ Association was formed in 1957, providing a founding group of 130 parents with the opportunity to advocate over issues concerning the care of their children resident at Kew Cottages.

The group was later renamed the Kew Cottages & St Nicholas Parents’ Association. In 1991 the group established a living memorial of a sensory garden designed to capture the imagination through touch, sound and smell.

The original garden planted with Australian native plants which were later replaced with exotic plants in a circular bed.

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I love walking and the day offered several pleasant walks through a leafy part of Melbourne sporting beautiful houses, luscious parks and a misty view of the city sprawl from a completely new angle.

A Tragedy

However, the past is not so loving… and another plaque reminded me of the fire in April 1996 when 9 male residents of Kew Cottages, aged between 30 and 40 years, tragically died. Two other residents and a staff member were injured.

The Kew Cottages & St Nicholas Parents’ Association erected a memorial for the victims of the fire to ensure the names will not be forgotten. I sat on a nearby bench surrounded by natural beauty trying to imagine the chaos and trauma of that night and the terrible loss to the families of the men.

History important and memorials important because the tragedy would have been newspaper headlines for only a couple of days.

I hope people walking along the path – and there is plenty of evidence dog walkers proliferate! – take the time to pause, even sit, and think about the past residents of Willsmere and Kew Cottages.

I hope they think about how the residents were treated and the failures caused by lack of funding and resources. Think about how we must ensure our society does better, and our governments don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.

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A Poem for a Special Place

mordi beach as sun sets

Mordialloc Meditation
Mairi Neil

 

In Main Street, Mordialloc
the lull of evening signalled
by oh, so familiar sounds…
the birds begin to jostle and joust
for palm tree frond, gum-leafed house.

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Dusk descends into twilight glow
the tweets and squeals
now a deafening crescendo –
a cacophony of conversation:
‘Time for bed.’
‘Nestle down!’
‘That’s my branch…’
‘Move over magpies!’
All must know their station
In life, there’s a sense of place
chatter, bargain, even squabble
but eventually, share the space.

‘Stop skylarking about!’
‘You lorikeet lout!’
‘Squeeze over sparrows.’
‘How precious are parrots?’
‘Pigeons! The rooftops are home for you
go mutter your usual “coo coo”…’

And in the gloaming, shadows
of building construction loom,
mounds of dirt inhabit lonely gloom.
A treeless landscape, evictions rife
Mordi’s birds facing a new life.
I remember a bloody chainsaw day
shake my head, and turn away…

Continue to walk by Mordi Creek
watch the ducks silently glide,
a gannet rest in contemplation
this beautiful tranquillity
a sanctuary from conurbation.

How lovely the shimmering ripples
of boats tethered for the night, as
feathered friends dive and feed
in the quickly fading light.
A familiar outline against the sky
silhouettes of ancient trees
reminding us of when this creek
hosted Bunurong corroborees.

The path peopled by dog walkers,
and school children hurrying home
joggers and health fanatics – all
grateful for the space to roam.
In the eucalyptus evening hush
this precious part of the day, my
Mordialloc meditative therapy
designed to keep the doldrums at bay.

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My Culture, My Story – What Makes a Place Special?

History Library Prahran

The Australian Heritage Festival 2018

Heritage –
1. property that descends to an heir, an inheritance
2. something valuable transmitted by or acquired from a predecessor or predecessors; a legacy
3. a country’s history and traditions
4. (used before a noun) relating to or presenting a country’s history and traditions, especially in an attractive and nostalgic way: a heritage centre

The New Penguin Compact English Dictionary, 2001

I have to thank Facebook for reminding this festival was happening and for inundating my newsfeed with events in Victoria they have decided (correctly) I might be interested in – although I have to miss many because of work, finances and/or timing.

The dreadful analytics and profiling we hear about in the news have, as Agent 86, Maxwell Smart used to say, ‘worked for good, not evil’!

And so, on Sunday, April 22, I went on the “Heritage Walk: Department Stores of Chapel Street” meeting at the Victorian History Library in Prahran to follow Steve Stefanopoulos, Mayor of Stonnington and a local historian to explore former department stores, historical sites and heritage buildings along a part of iconic Chapel Street.

 

Dynamic and in love with the history of his city, Steve reminded us to look up and around at the architecture, even when we didn’t stop to hear the history of particular buildings.

He is on the board of Open House Melbourne and as we waited for the tour to start I discovered another lady who, like me, volunteers for Open House. I was in good company.

Chapel Street, Prahran’s Charming Architecture

Before we started the tour, Steve distributed a book written by local historian, Betty Malone, Chapel Street Prahran Part One 1834-1918. This well written, 72-page book absolutely crammed with research and fascinating details and included in the price of the 2-hour tour, which for seniors was $15.00 –  fantastic value for an entertaining Sunday afternoon. (And you can add ‘healthy’ because of Steve’s brisk walking pace!)

history book

Steve walked fast and talked even faster so they were right to advertise that ‘unfortunately, it was not suitable for people with mobility issues‘ but we had traffic lights to let us cross the road and paved footpaths – very different from Betty’s description of the beginning…

In the late 1830s, when Melbourne was still young, Chapel Street was a rough, unnamed bush track leading south from the better known Gardiner’s Creek Road in the direction of the Mornington Peninsula, crossing similar tracks that led east to Dandenong and beyond. Used mainly by horsemen and stock riders with their flocks and herds, it turned and twisted as it wound its way up and down small hills and gullies, avoiding the big red gums, the patches of thick scrub and the numerous waterholes, lagoons, creeks and swampy ground that lay across its path. It must have been a pleasant track to follow in good weather, with its wattles and wildflowers, its birds and small bush creatures, though most of the men who passed along were probably more intent on spurring their animals to reach their destinations than on enjoying the surroundings.

As car horns blared, music blasted from shops, and crockery clattered amidst the chatter from the sidewalk tables outside cafes, it took concentration to listen and imagine what it must have been like last century, and the century before that… yet as our guide pointed out by regulation and effort many of the facades and even some internal features of magnificent buildings have been retained and restored to former glory.

The Osment Buildings

These photographs before (Betty’s book) and after (mine) are of the Osment buildings, built in 1910-11, they housed Osment’s Emporium, one of just a number of similar department stores erected between the late 1890s and the 1930s between Commercial Road and High Street. The decorated pediment contains the name ‘Osment Buildings’ in relief lettering.

Henry Osment once owned the Prahran Telegraph and was a local councillor from 1887 to 1898 and Mayor of Prahran in 1888-89. His descendants built the three-storey emporium.

It has a symmetrical facade of red brick and cement render. Flanking bays contained oriel bay windows with sinuously curved parapets and prominent arches. Steve was annoyed that recent modernisation removed the bay windows.

As mayor, he has worked hard to preserve the heritage uniqueness and stop inappropriate development and/or deliberate ‘vandalism’ aka modernisation destroying irreplaceable features.

A local landmark, Osment Buildings remind us of how grand and elegant early 20th Century shopping was for the well-to-do citizens of Melbourne. It has some beautiful Art Nouveau details especially the small Ionic columns of green faience between each set of windows. The arched openings are accentuated by exaggerated voussoirs (wedge-shaped stones).

An excellent example of the imposing buildings of the Marvellous Melbourne period it is now a mixture of residential flats and small studios, with shops at street level and depending on the time of day the glazing on the columns glitters in the sunlight.

Chapel Street, Still the Place To Be

Nowadays, Chapel Street Prahran has plenty of eateries to cater for the students at Swinburne University’s Prahran Campus including the popular (and cheap) Lucky Coq. But the buildings we were interested in hearing about were the emporiums, such as Moore’s and The Big Store, which used an Edwardian Free Style.

They sometimes added American Romanesque influence, such as on the Love and Lewis building.

The Big Store

The Big Store is now a Coles’ supermarket but was a business set up by William Gibson who emigrated from Glasgow in 1882. He first opened a shop in Collingwood as a partner of Francis Foy and continued to trade as sole proprietor when the partnership dissolved.

An astute businessman he survived the 1890s depression and even expanded his interests into a hosiery in Perth and woollen mills.

After William’s death in 1918,  John Maclellan, a partner merged the company with Foy’s and they remained trading as The Big Store until 1967. The furniture store had become a cigarette factory (Capstan and Black Cat brands).

Maclellan is remembered as being civic-minded and a progressive employer who provided sporting facilities for his staff and provided a lavish Christmas party for employees and their families.

…one feature that delighted children in the toy department especially at Christmas. The youngsters could travel the ups and downs of a switchback installed in one corner, the means of conveyance being a wicker basket.

 

Love And Lewis

The firm of drapers, Love and Lewis, first occupied premises in Prahran in 1897, and in 1913 replaced their original three-storey premises with a larger five-storey building. Distinctive lettering appears in the spandrels, which alternate with strips of windows and provide the horizontal emphasis to the building.

Offsetting this are vertical piers, emphasised by red and cream striped brickwork and crowned with exaggerated pairs of consoles. The top floor of the building features arched window openings with terracotta patterned panels to the spandrels.

It sold drapery of all kinds but specialised in cheaper lines of goods. Mr Lewis was the best known in Chapel Street, and people speak of him as interesting or as an eccentric… The business was moved to the city in Bourke Street.

Adelaide businessman Charles Moore built his five-storey store, the most dominant of the large emporia along Chapel Street, at the corner of Commercial Road in 1914. The design by the architects Sydney Smith and Ogg was never fully completed.

The building has two circular corner bays capped by domes that stand on elaborate drums. The main facade (only partially completed along Chapel Street) has massive Corinthian columns supported by pedestals, and banded piers at the corners, which support a heavy cornice and a balustraded parapet.

Large areas of glass light the interiors. There are huge oval windows on the first floor and an arched opening over the main Commercial Road entrance. The twin domes are especially prominent elements. The intact verandah is particularly ornate and notable and the building tastefully renovated inside.

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The section of Chapel Street we walked had several commercial buildings from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Above the ground floor, the majority of the facades have retained their original decorative features.

In some cases, Victorian facades have been ‘modernised’ during the last few decades by stripping them of their nineteenth-century decorative elements. Most of the ground floor shops-fronts have been modernised, but some were updated in the early twentieth century, and have preserved the lead-lighted shop-fronts from earlier times.

Some were rebuilt after devastating fires in the early part of the twentieth century. Reminders of earlier eras remain and for anyone interested in history or writers looking for authenticity of setting, a walk along Chapel Street is worthwhile.

As Steve said, ‘If the door is open, be respectful and go inside. Look at what original architectural features are left. Many have beautiful ceilings, cornices, mosaic floors and even pillars and statues.

A woman in our small group said she had worked in one of the big stores. It was her first job leaving school at fourteen.

‘Which counter?’ asked Steve.

‘Cosmetics.’

‘Of course,’ said the mayor and we smiled. In the era, this lady started work it would have been regarded as one of the few jobs available to females.

Several others on the tour revisited their childhood as we walked. For some, it was first jobs or where they used to shop regularly with their parents, for others they used to come to Chapel Street for a special reason or a treat.

 

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Newspaper adverts 1909

 

… haberdashery shops, milliners, dressmakers, tailors, mercery, women and children’s wear, boots and shoe stores…

Furniture shops proliferated to meet the demand of a growing district’s population. Local goods made in Melbourne’s factories were taking their place beside imported manufactures, and Prahran gained a number of watchmakers, clockmakers and jewellers from Germany and Switzerland…

The Conway Buildings

The best surviving shopfronts are in the section of Chapel Street south of High Street. Most of the original verandahs have been replaced with cantilevered awnings. However, the eight shops of Conway’s Buildings, (1890), have retained their original elaborate stonework and columns.

Some people have bought buildings and been true to heritage guidelines and restored facades beautifully but restoration is not cheap and some owners have buildings in serious disrepair.

The hotel above JB Hi-Fi is a case in point – the owner has already spent $150,000 – 200,000 just on the street entrance attempting to restore the hotel’s original features. Whereas the owner of another building is only using the street level retail area and may be waiting for the upper storeys to deteriorate beyond restoration.

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The Australian Heritage Festival is Australia’s biggest annual community-driven heritage festival. It promotes greater awareness, knowledge and understanding of our national heritage, focusing on what makes a place special, encouraging us all to embrace the future by sharing the strengths of our cultural identities.

  • An opportunity to reflect on the places where we live, work, and travel.
  • Why are they special?
  • An opportunity to celebrate our many diverse and distinctive cultures.

I hope to participate in other events before the festival is over but I chose the Chapel Street tour for personal reasons – I used to live on the corner of Alfred and Greville Streets and nostalgia is a powerful emotion and drawcard.

I love history and admire the architectural features of many old buildings but I was curious about my old flat and the area where I spent 4 years in the early 1980s.

As a teacher of Life Stories and Legacies, I’d be remiss not to take advantage of a walk down memory lane!

greville street entrance

Greville Street

I wandered down Greville Street – a tourist precinct now and upmarket! There is a lovely park, buildings have been renovated and restored, shop fronts spruced up. A vibrancy replaces grunge and the whole area has changed with vehicle access limited.

The block of flats on the corner of Alfred Street is still there, although the shrubs and small trees from 35 years ago now reach the second-floor windows of my old flat.

My local pub, The College Lawn has had a makeover, as has the little park opposite the flats. The one unimaginative swing and sad roundabout, replaced by new play equipment and seats for carers and guardians to enjoy. Trees almost block out the sprawling conglomerate of Wesley College in the background.

Some tiny Victorian homes are either gone or have been renovated with the latter now worth an absolute fortune.

I remember walking up to the Prahran Railway Station or Chapel Street and seeing Leunig working in a studio – the barest of rooms in the drabbest of buildings.

There are no bare shopfronts now and I can only guess the rents too high for a struggling artist!

I remember Checkpoint Charlie, the nickname John gave the Caretaker of our block of flats. The elderly bloke lived in the bottom flat with his wife and either got the flat rent free or was paid to keep the stairwell, foyer, gardens and carpark clean and tidy. He never missed a trick and stood at the window watching everyone coming and going. His portly, grey-haired figure often seen twitching the lace curtains.

When I lived in the flat I had a porcelain doll of Charlie Chaplin. My three-year-old nephew loved playing with Charlie’s cane and bowler hat and chatted away to the doll. He overheard us refer to Checkpoint Charlie and I guess the two Charlies were confusing because he ended up calling them both ‘Charlie Checklin’ and thought the doll sometimes lived downstairs.

Molly Meldrum lived further along Alfred Street. The border of Prahran and South Yarra very close. The South Yarra postcode much more desirable as a friend who lived in a flat near the border never tired of emphasising. However, Molly didn’t exhibit petty snobbishness and twice when I walked by I was invited to a party. There was always music coming from his house and he loved his parties and usually invited all the neighbours to minimise complaints!

I remember going to night school at the old Prahran College of Advanced Education and studying creative writing with Gerald Murnane and John Powers and treasure their feedback on the first short story I submitted and the first play.

I received my Australian Citizenship certificate at a ceremony in the Town Hall in 1981. The event sticks in my mind because Clyde Holding MP, the leader of the Opposition at the time sat on stage with his fly undone. John whispered this fact to me and when it was my turn to go up and shake hands I struggled to suppress a giggle.

I don’t know if others noticed but someone must have given him a hint by the time it came to mingling with us ‘new Australians’ afterwards.

It’s funny what memories are triggered and as I stared at my old home I thought of a writing exercise I gave my students this week, ostensibly to tap into a childhood memory to create a poem.

The Structure of “I Remember”

I remember the echo of footsteps in concrete stairwell, the squeak of rubber soles, the click of high heels, the heavy tread of work boots

I remember the singsong voices of children in the park and rumble of roller blades on pavement and road

I remember the drone of distant traffic on Punt Road, the electric trains blowing their horns and the school siren controlling the day at Wesley College

But mostly I remember the gentle tones of Simon and Garfunkel and Deanna Durbin as I relaxed in my one-bedroom sanctuary from the busyness of the working day.

One of the ways I picture memory is to see it weaving a kind of continuous spider’s web that’s laid down all the time we occupy. This invisible net allows most things to pass through it. But some are trapped, sometimes for years, sometimes only briefly. Memory’s web-net acts like a kind of border crossing. Each today must pass through it on its journey towards tomorrow and becoming another yesterday. These border crossings between our days are patrolled by the not-always-vigilant guards of remembering. Their decisions about which moments to wave through, and which to detain, veer wildly between what’s reasonable and what seems utterly capricious.

Chris Arthur, Prisoners of Memory, an essay.

 

Did You Know 35% of 15-Year-Olds Are NOT Digitally Literate or Proficient in Technology?

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As mentioned in a previous blog, I attended a conference on Adult Education in the community sector where I’ve worked for two decades. This was a great opportunity to consider how learning has changed and what it will look like into the future.

The Foundation For Young Australians was represented by Shona McPherson who is passionate about redefining the role of young people in our society, as well as her belief that the not-for-profit sector can drive social innovation in Australia.

The Foundation has produced detailed reports and these can be downloaded or read on their website. The shocking statistic in the title for this blog is one of them.

Before saying, “Oh, that can’t be true,” it is worthwhile reading the research.

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Teenagers may be big on using Facebook, gaming, and texting but that is not necessarily literacy.

  • Can they use more than Google’s search engine to find information and when they find it can they verify its provenance?
  • Can they format a document?
  • Can they write and send a coherent email?
  • Do they know the difference between various types of files?
  • Do they understand about security on the Internet?

In 2018, we have more than one generation of digital natives, but not necessarily literate ones yet 90% of jobs will require digital literacy

Digital literacy involves:

  • basic skills
  • getting online
  • communication knowhow
  • navigate online
  • create documents

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What Does Being Literate Mean?

Shona focused on digital literacy and building a different mindset for the future but another speaker, Sally Thompson, the Deputy Director of the Future Social Service Institute, who is an education analyst and leader with a background in adult literacy, challenged us to think about how we view literacy and what it will mean for future adult learning needs.

What do adults use literacy for and how do they learn?

Why do they learn?

  • How do we apply reading and writing in everyday life? 
  • In this world of globalisation, many people speak read and write variations of English.
  • It is also a digital world.
  • The main game for us in the community education sector is building a network so people can live meaningful lives.
  • This is complex.

A project by the Australian National University mapped literacy in an Aboriginal community where indigenous language has been retained.

What is reading and writing to them and what did they use their literacy skills for?

Researchers discovered the church, community radio, and other shared hubs for community life were where text was generated.

  • making of culture was the aim,
  • also interacting with other groups
  • and there was extensive use of literacy mediators.

For example, in the Aboriginal community, there were a lot of fly-in/fly-out service providers. When people encountered new texts they didn’t try and master all of it but sought help from the Christian pastor, retail workers in the shops (mainly young women) and those permanent workers or volunteers at community hubs like the radio station.

We all use literacy mediators!

If you have a new mobile phone you don’t read the manual you find a teenager.

If you buy furniture or any other item that needs assembling (think Ikea) you may call a friend or check Youtube.

If you want to understand the prospectus of a tertiary institution, health information, public transport timetables, and numerous other pieces of information that may be delivered in an unfamiliar or detailed format, you ask a friend, a family member, an employee, a receptionist… even a passing member of the public who looks as if they are knowledgeable or confident!

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Globalisation has made literacy a patchwork.

It takes a village to be literate in the modern globalised world.

The image we have of someone illiterate is confirmation bias. We think poor, disadvantaged, miserable but research has proven this is NOT TRUE!

  • Researchers discovered the majority of those traditionally regarded as miserable actually live fulfilled meaningful lives by relying on networks to navigate texts.
  • They don’t see themselves as dependent nor do they usually employ someone to read and write for them.  If they do, a lot of trust is required.

However, Sally said the cliches still exist.

If you have no mates you’re in trouble, if low literacy and no friends you are in diabolical trouble.

In the community sector, we often deal with the cliches (those in diabolical trouble, friendless and illiterate, or with poor literacy skills.)

We work incredibly hard in the adult education sector to ensure people can return to education or continue lifelong learning.

However, regardless of our position, we are all literacy mediators especially administration staff who are the first responders to people coming in and needing brochures/leaflets interpreted.

Similar scenarios occur in medical facilities, retail establishments and many government or banking offices. 

There are numerous social interactions and explanations where staff are entrusted to help people or where people help others understand a map, a guidebook, operating instructions etc.

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The research into various communities showed that:

Tradesmen’s wives, parish secretaries, administration and reception staff – these people often have bi-cultural experience or knowledge.

The work they do is invisible. Comfortable in their environment, available, non-judgemental, and not in a position of authority, they will share their literacy skills.

Reflect on the number of times you have asked someone to decipher instructions, explain a form to be filled in, even translate a menu!

Literacy today is a complex issue. 

Especially financial literacy.

There are lots of mediators necessary because who can say they understand superannuation and the taxation system?

Not many as the current Royal Commission into the banks is revealing.

And as more and more services go online digital literacy is necessary to pay bills, pay for goods, issue accounts and quotes.

Sally suggests that there is a policy disconnect because the government thinks you can only teach and examine levels of literacy in a particular way and so there is a political origin of the tests we use to judge skills.

Isle of Arran 2017

How do you measure literacy?

The current tests are too narrow because we are dealing with human beings, not problems to be solved. A competency-based assessment doesn’t necessarily help.

  • We are not prepared for the modern globalised world.
  • We need to make what is needed visible and encourage the government to change its attitude to funding and other measures because technology is here to stay and in every aspect of our lives.

A conference member told a story of her 17-year-old son who wanted her to play a game on his iPad. She couldn’t understand the technology, or ‘language’  used nor the rules. He became so frustrated with trying to explain that he gave up playing with her.

When getting into the city building where the conference was held we confronted technology.

A keycard with your unique code had to be collected from a central reception area, the card was swiped to go further into the foyer and gain access to a lift to our particular building and floor.

The card had to be held in a way that the barcode was read, not swiped or tapped, which was the first instinct for most people and caused a bit of confusion.

To leave the building was a similar process – a bit like tapping on and off a Myki for the trains and trams (and this was a new experience for country members).

The use of barcodes and scanning is increasing.

I remember when I volunteered at MIFF (Melbourne International Film Festival) a few years ago only a few patrons downloaded movie tickets onto their mobile phones and the scanners we had were unreliable and didn’t always work.

Today, most people print off tickets or download them onto their phones. If you don’t, you suffer long queues at venues where less staff are employed to deal with the “digital dinosaurs”.

However, navigating websites for information or to buy products can be a nightmare because of poorly worded instructions.

Southland Shopping Centre has introduced paid parking since the train station has opened. Shoppers get the first 3 hours free and movie-goers get an extra hour if they ‘scan the barcode on their ticket’.

What is not clearly understood is that you must take your downloaded ticket to the box office and exchange it for a barcode because just scanning your printed ticket won’t give you that extra hour free. It would be helpful if these instructions were on the website or added to the ticket.

To “get out the carpark free” you have to scan the collected barcode, key in your car number plate and wait for a confirmation.

When I went with my daughters to see the latest Marvel movie (fantastic by the way!) there were a lot of confused customers, a queue at the ticket machine, and most people had to try several times to get the instruction sequence right.

Digitalisation is increasing but so are frustration levels and those not competent with new technology will be increasingly isolated.

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What does it mean to be smart?

Shona  McPherson asked the conference who was the smartest person at school and why did we think they were smart.

A quick discussion around the tables revealed we judged people’s smartness in different ways but usually who got the highest marks in a test or performed better at a sport.

On reflection, we know this is a bad perception, but we still look at who gets the highest TER at VCE.

We carry these perceptions into adult life and yet it should be challenged – employers are usually not interested in high school scores.

But, we still think in numbers when we judge success. In workplaces, it is the ones who have the best sales figures or best results who are considered the smartest.

 A truck driver may not think he is good at maths and may not be able to write well and yet he can look at a truck and know exactly how many pallets it will take, its capacity and weight and fill out relevant forms.

For us, it’s about working out the student needs and directing energy to what they don’t know, not what they already know, and giving them the confidence to see what skills they already have and to build or adapt them to the digital future.

The perception that high test scores are the indicator of smartness is now outdated in workplaces and should be challenged. Other skills are more important and not necessarily quantified by numbers

  • financial literacy, personal initiative, enterprise skills, computer coding, communicating via email etc
  • the practical application should be building those skills in schools, looking at the VCAL system to improve outcomes and adapting to digital workplaces
  • intergenerational learning – using young people skills for older learners

Accreditation will be different – individual and acquired skills will be judged holistically.

Watching 3 TED Talks you have completed learning but how do you measure it? The motivation for learning must be the number one priority but how do you provide the carrot to excite students?

And talking about TED talks these ones by Sir Ken Robinson are worth watching:

What will learning look like in the future?

  • On-demand learning, e-Learning, just in time, and m-learning (mobile learning).
  • It will be modern and contemporary, MOOC, in-bundling and less sitting in classrooms
  • Learning will be done when you want to do it.
  • It is the era of the individual – what do I need? How do I get it?
  • Less structure, more independence and embracing technology.
  • Increasingly there is the attitude ‘get on board or get out of the way.’
  • Don’t reject it because it’s everywhere like SMART phones!
  • Learning is not just face-to-face anymore but we are still connected whether through videos, podcasts, webinars, Skype, Messenger, closed Facebook groups…

Our city is changing rapidly and so must we – I was struck by how isolated Bunjil, the Great Eagle sculpture looked – almost swamped by high-rise and high-tech – and yet Aboriginal culture survives, has adapted, adopted, and influenced…

People look insignificant from the top floors of the buildings too. The future, like our city, will look different but that doesn’t have to be negative.

Teachers in the Sector have been Called to Action

  1. Challenge what you think you know
  2. More important work out what you don’t know
  3. Make a plan for the future
  4. Planning meets opportunity = luck
  5. Ask questions of mentors and others in your professional network

Lifelong learning will look different

  • Risk being foolish and making mistakes with technology.
  • Learning programs must be co-designed – sharing technical knowledge and talent.

Skills are transferable

  • behaviour management
  • confidence building
  • navigating your way around work

Don’t be a Digital Dinosaur!

How Do Writers Benefit?

Mastering digital technology has empowered writers to publish their work and keep all the income for themselves. Some writers have embraced this control and thrived, but many more still struggle striving for elusive success.

Not every writer wants to, as the latest buzzword insists “monetize” their creativity, some just want to publish their poetry, short stories, family history or novel for the joy of writing and sharing.  Even so, skills and quality control are needed.

There are many steps in the process of writing and publishing – each one important:

  • good editing
  • design formatting
  • ISBN
  • quality covers
  • copyright
  • launching – real and/or virtual
  • publicity and marketing – blogging, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube…
  • financial matters such as how will people pay, downloading, invoicing and taxation responsibilities

At every step, you will encounter technology – be prepared and learn – and I can think of no better place to upgrade skills and confidence than at your local neighbourhood house.

The following are just a selection of what is on offer at Godfrey Street in Bentleigh (9557 9037), but similar classes will be found at Longbeach Place in Chelsea (9776 1386) and other community houses around the Victoria.

Understanding and mastering the new technology in a sensible, ordered way will assuage fear and frustration, limit mistakes, and save valuable writing time!

And you never know – you may be more digitally literate than you think. 

A fun lesson is writing a poem, short story, even a novel in bite-sized sentences of no more than 140 characters – the standard number for a Tweet – good luck!

Penultimate by M C Neil
The writing class complained
Digital tools are not for them
Pen and ink and even type
Will outlast this Twitter hype!

Nevertheless, they wrote some great poems and flash fiction.

 

 

 

World Book Day – A Day I Could Celebrate Every Day!

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World Book Day, April 23rd

“Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination and the journey. They are home.”

Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life

If people, especially family and friends, are asked to agree on one object associated with me, they’d probably all say, ‘a book’.

I’m often tagged in posts or memes doing the rounds of Facebook featuring books, author quotes, libraries, bookcases and book bags – and recently, even a cake decorated as if a library.

No matter where I go, I’m always drawn to the books on display or for sale!

 

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Bookstall at Quilting and Craft Fair

 

The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

Dr Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!

I’ve written posts devoted to reading books, writing books, book launches, local libraries and literacy in general.

I’ve thanked my parents for valuing reading and books, and I know I’ve instilled that same love in my children.

“The habit of reading is the only enjoyment I know in which there is no alloy. It lasts when all other pleasures fade. It will be there to support you when all other resources are gone. It will be present to you when the energies of your body have fallen away from you. It will last you until your death. It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.”

Anthony Trollope

I remember favourite authors from childhood – I loved Louisa M Alcott. Birthdays and Christmas were special celebrations with a new book always part of, and sometimes the main present.

my louisa alcott books

I still have some of those much-treasured childhood books and on a recent trip to Orkney and the Shetland Islands, I spent several hours in a wonderful exhibition with displays of books and toys reminiscent of my 1950s childhood, confirming that I’m not the only one who hangs onto books for years!

I can remember Mrs Saffin, the librarian at Croydon High School insisting I had to borrow other books when she saw I was working my way through a shelf of the Just William series written by English author Richmal Crompton.

The adventures of the cheeky schoolboy William Brown whose naughty escapades always seemed to end in afternoon tea of iced buns and lemonade appealed to me! But Mrs Saffin was right, I was in high school and needed to expand my horizons.

“A book is a device to ignite the imagination.”

Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader

William’s pluck reminded me of George aka Georgina, one of the main characters in the Famous Five stories by Enid Blyton.

I wanted to be adventurous, solve mysteries and have fun – and the thought of going off on picnics with a satchel of sandwiches, cream buns and fizzy pop, a dream come true when you are one of six siblings in a working-class family.

I expect both of these talented female authors appealed to girls like myself who either didn’t fit or ached to break, the mould of traditional expectations of girls to be pretty and demure.

Ill in bed after an emergency appendectomy, I received a bundle of books from my Aunt Chrissie: The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, The Railway Children and The Wool-Pack.

I read about grief, illness,  feudalism, colonialism, social inequality, the importance of education and the necessity to have dreams.

I read about broken families and boarding schools, kindness and meanness, courage and cowardice, love and hate.

The books all written about or from the point of view of a child or adolescent.

I remember being shocked to read that in medieval times prepubescent girls like me were married off, that even in so-called more modern times people of colour or those with a disability were maltreated and abused.

How could people believe your birth should determine your status in life?

And how exciting to learn that being adventurous, curious and even disobedient reaped rewards.

Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books gave me a thirst for adventure.  The Magic Faraway Tree indulged childhood fantasies but novels allowed me to fall in love with history, belonging, and longing, and more importantly writing!

I wanted to be a storyteller and write stories about ordinary and extraordinary people whether in the past or the now!

When I was studying for my masters’ degree, I had to reflect on what books helped shape my view of society and culture.

  • To look critically at the dominant ways in which our culture operates.
  • What books provided insight or a ‘light bulb’ moment into what it means to be human?
  • Which books helped me understand my place in the long history of human development?

Although most of the books were written from the perspective of western culture they raised issues and aspects of racism, sexism, feminism, Marxism, socialism, fascism, colonialism, and other “isms” that don’t immediately spring to mind. 

They created questions and still create conversations with people who have read them. They explore themes that are timeless. They have been made into television or cinematic films, either through adaptations or appropriation.

“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.”

Charles William Eliot

Five books I’m Glad I Still Own

A Patch of Blue

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Written 1961 and adapted to film starring Sidney Poitier in 1965.

I read this novel in 1967 when I was 14 years old, probably inspired by seeing the movie on television. The author,  Australian Elizabeth Kata produced a book with the main message of tolerance, a theme demanding we see beyond the colour of a person’s skin and reject the negativity and destructiveness of racial prejudice.

The brutal effects of an abusive family contrast with the power of education, friendship and love. 

The ending of the book is not as optimistic as the ending of the film and on reflection may have been the first time I realised or began to question the difference between how literature and film tell stories.

The book is set in America, but it made me more aware of the treatment of indigenous Australians because the 1967 Referendum Campaign was happening and stimulated public and family discussions about racism.

The 1967 Referendum made history: Australians voted overwhelmingly to amend the constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census and allow the Commonwealth to create laws for them.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

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Now a free Ebook. Written in 1910 but not published until 1914.

This novel by Irish-born Robert Tressell was compulsory reading in my family circle. An accurate historical account of the lives of the working class, it delivers a comprehensive explanation of capitalism and the need for a socialist alternative.

In my last two years of high school, I studied British History, Australian History and Eighteenth-Century History and during one of the many discussions I had with my father, he handed me Tressell’s book,

Your Papa bought this and told me to read it, I’m passing it on…

When I read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists at 16, it helped me understand what life was like for my grandparents and what shaped my father’s staunch belief in trade unionism as a means to improve the conditions of workers and challenge the excesses of capitalism. It nurtured my desire to work for social justice and later seek employment within the trade union movement.

Robert Tressell’s tale of life for craftsmen and building workers in the early part of the 20th century whilst working in the mythical, yet all too authentic, Mugsborough reveals clearly the exploitative nature of capitalism. Since its publication, it has been reprinted many times, adapted as plays, made into a television series, films and docudramas. The Labour Movement has justifiably conferred biblical status on this much-celebrated book.

Readers experience the tragedies and joys of the characters and the harshness of their workplace with the inherently unequal relationship between workers and bosses in Edwardian England as the system impacts on social relations, human activity, and their dreams for a better life.

In 2010, on one of my early forays online I made contact with Reg Johnson, the husband of Robert Tressell’s granddaughter. We exchanged emails and letters and he shared some family information and history, which enriched my understanding of the author’s struggles to get his writing published and to retain the integrity of his story – a saga that will be worthy of someone’s PhD or even another novel, I’m sure.

Crime and Punishment

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Free Ebook. Written in 1866 – in serial form.

I studied this novel by Fyodor (Mikhailovich) Dostoevsky, at school and the story, characters, theme and concepts still fascinate me. It is a great novel to stimulate discussion about whether the ends justify the means, definitions of good and evil, examine ethics and morality, and is there a fine line between sanity and madness?

The protagonist, Raskolnikov, a poor law student murders an old woman who is reviled as a pawnbroker/money-lender, but her sister who is an innocent bystander is also killed. The background is a Russia under a reforming Tsar but nevertheless a country of great inequality and poverty for freed serfs and an economy undergoing transition. 

The rich description and historical detail satisfied my love of history. It was also the first novel I had read that introduced the image of the ‘good prostitute ‘– a woman forced into prostitution by extreme poverty. Dostoevsky’s Christian socialist beliefs are not hidden as he exposes the ‘immorality’ of drunkenness and domestic violence in St Petersburg, the main setting of the novel.

There is also Siberia, a vast place with penal outposts used to banish and punish people considered a danger to society. (Dostoevsky experienced Siberia when exiled along with several other intellectuals and so described that setting realistically.)

Raskolnikov realises by committing murder he has killed his own humanity and we watch his psychological, physical and emotional health deteriorate as he struggles with deep guilt and moves towards redemption. His unravelling helped by a dogged detective who suspects Raskolnikov and is determined to punish him for the crime.

The book is a good vehicle to examine personal ethics, showing life often presents difficult choices and we may regret a choice we make. It contends ‘Fate’ is an illusion and we all have free will, but the author’s realism is underpinned by his personal life experience and political leanings and belief in Russian Orthodoxy.

This book started my fascination with Russia and I promised myself I’d visit the country ‘one day’.

Last year, I fulfilled that dream and not only travelled through Siberia on the Trans-Siberian Railway but went to Dostoevsky’s house in St Petersburg, and saw where he would have written his novels, the streets he walked, imagined the places and events that sparked his imagination…

Visited Dostoevsky’s house today where he wrote Crime And Punishment among other novels. This city was a character in his most famous stories. It’s where he developed as a writer and where his most famous fictional characters lived. Exiled to Siberia for 10 years for revolutionary activities he had to make his name all over again. This is his last address when he was earning a comfortable income after renting many cheap appartments. He rented here in 1846 and then returned 1878 until his death in 1881. It’s fitting this building should be a museum encapsulating the beginning and the end of his writing career! I breathed deeply, imagined the views from the window – oh, if only part of his talent still floated in the air to be transferred to admirers like me.

The Women’s Room

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Written 1977. Made into a film for television in 1980 starring Lee Remick and Ted Danson.

This semi-autobiographical and debut novel by Marilyn French was published at the height of the Women’s Liberation Movement and explored the oppression of women and the need for change through the protagonist Mira who escapes an inequitable 1950s marriage and returns to study at university.

The questions asked in The Women’s Room still cause debate: Is anatomy destiny? Are all men potential rapists – do they look at women as sexual objects first before recognising other qualities? Does traditional marriage suffocate women?

It was criticised for being too anti-men and having too few male characters, yet struck a chord with many women who felt trapped in society’s idea that a woman should seek to be a wife and mother and always put the needs and desires of others before her own.

The biting social commentary made me examine my mother’s life and those of her generation and question what I wanted from a relationship. The anger and despair of the women portrayed in the novel spurred me to work for change and social justice. I had read books detailing the aims and philosophy behind Women’s Liberation and French’s novel personalised and wove feminism’s threads into a rich, emotional tapestry.

I worked in a Women’s Refuge (Maroondah Halfway House) and met women who felt they couldn’t speak up or who had been beaten for speaking out. They didn’t have the privileges of the middle-class American women who people this novel and it was more difficult for them to choose a different path. Those of us at the refuge collective tried to enable the women who sought help, ensured they felt safe enough to be empowered to make choices.

I liked the style of Marilyn French’s writing, the authenticity of her characters and the pacing, not only of the main story but a series of subplots. These were voices who needed to be heard with messages I could understand.

No Great Mischief

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Written 2001. 

In this novel about the Scottish diaspora in Canada, Canadian Alistair Macleod reflects on the varied journeys of members of Clan MacDonald forced from their home during the infamous Highland Clearances. 

It explores identity, family loyalty, the connection between past and present, connection to the land, the inevitability of change, the importance and effect of cultural values, and the resilience of love, especially family love.

The narrator shows how the history of a family (mini-narrative) is rooted in the larger mega-narrative of historical events. I belong to the MacInnes Clan who share a history with the MacDonalds and this novel contributed to my understanding of the value of knowing your heritage and encouraged the exploration of my identity.

As an immigrant to Australia, I often reflect on my childhood in Scotland. Have often wondered and asked the question – where do I belong?

The narrator, Alexander MacDonald, guides us through his family’s mythic past recollecting the heroic stories of loggers, miners, excessive drinkers and adventurers. The theme of exile and links to the ancestry of their highland clan everpresent.

The legendary patriarch left the Scottish Highlands in 1779 to resettle in “the land of trees” with descendants becoming a separate Nova Scotia clan. Brothers and cousins, expert miners travel around the world and the protagonist Alexander and his twin sister, leave Cape Breton and prosper, but are haunted by the past.

No Great Mischief resonated with me because I too feel the blood ties that bind me to the land from which I came despite establishing a family here in Australia.

A recent trip back to my birth country reinforced links not only to the Scottish Highlands and my grandfather’s Isle of Skye but also to Northern Ireland and the Antrim coast, my mother’s homeland.

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“The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall; nations perish; civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead.”

Clarence Shepard Day

 

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Things found in donated books, Oxfam

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