A Dickens of An Exhibition For Writers of Fashionable Fiction!

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While attending two great free workshops on aspects of Scottish history at the Prahran Mechanics’ Institute Victorian History Library last week, I picked up a flyer for another event in Stonnington – also free. (I’m prepared for the jokes about stereotypical Scot being mean!)

This is a fabulous opportunity to learn some historical background and context for many of the female characters in the classic novels of Charles Dickens and to see yet another superb collection of clothes from the Dressing Australia Museum of Costume that provided the wonderful collection of clothes and other items for Be persuaded – Jane Austen, an exhibition by Glen Eira Council in January 2019.

Fiona and Keith Baverstock use the period fashion, textiles and fashion ephemera in their collection to create a themed exhibition, which they then take on tour. The research and attention to detail and the information supplied truly awesome.

Similar to many people, I read Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist while at high school. Later, I watched the many film and television adaptations of novels such as Bleak House, David Copperfield, The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Nicholas Nickelby produced by the BBC among others.

Many of Dickens’ characters and their utterances are household names. I’ve used quotes from his books in my creative writing classes, also extracts from newspaper articles because Dickens was a journalist before becoming a novelist.

Although, as one exhibit explains, he would fit right into the current complaints of  ‘fake news’ because Dickens had a dramatic streak. Always a creative writer at heart with emphasis on the ‘creative’ instead of factual reporting, he embellished stories to make them more interesting for the readers!

Charles Dickens is revered as a writer and most of the accolades are well-deserved. However, a neat summary of his life, plus many books, plays, and articles written revealing his complex personality, misbehaviour, and shabby treatment of his wife may disappoint some fans.

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First impressions of the Exhibition are of being on set preparing to make a historical film; the display of dresses stunning and cleverly grouped. The varied colours and designs catch your eye and display cases have accessories laid out as if in preparation to be donned.

You start to wander around the room and become absorbed in the stories of the women who peopled the novels of Dickens. You may be fascinated when examining the outfits and imagining their lives. What must it have been like moving around in voluminous gowns, restrictive corsetry and even more restrictive social mores and expectations?

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Sairey (Sarah) Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit

Dickens had a talent for creating memorable caricatures – comical but also despicable. They often personified the seven deadly sins: envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth and wrath… and introduced words from the vernacular that became common usage.

Sarah Gamp exemplified greed, selfishness and as a drunken nurse/midwife displayed a callous disregard for others. She was ‘ a potent weapon in the campaign against untrained, incompetent nurses. It took a Florence Nightingale to fully expose and sweep aside the armies of Sarah Gamps.’

 

The 1840s gown with evidence of wear and tear is slate-coloured striped taffeta. She presided over so many deaths so wears a mourning apron and black, crepe trimmed taffeta mourning cape and her ‘gamp’ (umbrella).

The image of Mrs Gamp’s ‘gig’ umbrella clutched to her person wherever she went, or displayed ‘with particular ostentation’ against the chimney breast of her bird-sized apartment above the bird fancier’s shop in Holborn so resonated with readers that ‘gamp’ became synonymous with umbrella, just as ‘Sarah Gamp’ became synonymous with a slovenly, inebriated ‘nurse’.

A gig was a light carriage with two wheels pulled by a single horse. In the latter part of the 19th century, it was deemed suitable for ladies to drive around their estates or into the village.

... ‘the lady would need a nifty weapon to beat off any ne’er-do-wells with the temerity to approach, and when stepping down she would need a handy little parasol. The gold cap comes off the sycamore case, the parasol slides out and screws neatly into the gold tip on the other end, Voila, protection from the sun or rain.’

There was nothing dainty or lady-like about Sarah Gamp. She would have driven a cart and her ‘gamp’ a heavy umbrella.

Catherine Dickens – the discarded wife

It was the actress Miriam Margoyles portraying Catherine Dickens in her play Dickens’ Women based on or inspired by 23 different characters in the novels by Dickens that made me think more deeply about how women were portrayed by the great storyteller.

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One reviewer said the production highlighted Dickens’ “obsession with youthful beauty and his baffling relationships with his sister-in-law”.

The detailed notes along with the chosen gown for Dickens’ wife are not complimentary to the man and emphasise how unfair the legal, as well as the social system,  was regarding the treatment of women.

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Reading about Catherine and looking at the dresses on display you can’t help but notice the tiny waists, the design drawing attention to the breasts and of course, being the era of gloves and hats, there was a dress code or expectation a lady had accessories.

  • How long did it take to get dressed?
  • How complicated were the designs to maintain – especially considering the material used?
  • And in an era of women producing baby after baby, how unsuitable were those clothes for pregnancy, breastfeeding and caring for children, let alone housework.

My paternal grandmother was married in 1900, the clothes hadn’t changed that much from the years before and the family story is that she fainted twice on her wedding day as her sister pulled the corset strings tight enough to ensure she had the obligatory 18-inch waist to fit her wedding dress!

Nancy in Oliver Twist, a ‘fallen woman’

Dickens never used the term prostitute or sex worker in his novel but readers are under no illusion about Nancy and her friend Bet described:

“They wore a good deal of hair, not very neatly turned up behind, and were rather untidy about the shoes and stockings. They were not exactly pretty, perhaps; but they had a great deal of colour in their faces, and looked quite stout and healthy. being remarkably free and easy with their manners, Oliver thought them to be very nice girls indeed. Which there is no doubt they were.”

I read Oliver Twist when I was fifteen and stark images of Victorian England and the appalling living standards of the poor in cities like London remain with me. Dickens

… knew how to hold an audience. The themes in his novels did, however, challenge the accepted beliefs of the day. Oliver Twist shines a light into the dark underbelly of life in the cities like London, confronting the comfortable complacent with the relationship between poverty and crime, revealing the iniquity and inequity of the Poor Laws and the Workhouse system – and its inept and corrupt officials.”

I can remember hoping that Nancy, who showed kindness to Oliver, would somehow be miraculously transformed and freed from the seedy clutches of Bill Sykes, but deep down knew her shockingly violent death was inevitable.

The ruched and frilled dress with elaborate cording, tight waist, laced back and revealing cleavage was chosen because the silky style would have appealed to Nancy, even if she would have preferred a more striking colour. This dress was ‘Perkins Purple’ and faded over time to mauve and then pearly grey.

In my imagination, Nancy would have worn feathers in her bonnet and always had a shawl!

Miss Havisham – who can forget a woman scorned?

There have been many adaptations of Great Expectations and it remains one of Dickens’ more popular novelsAgain he takes on the establishment, the ‘haves’ and emphasises the divide between the rich and poor.

The powerful regard poverty as a crime and use prison to punish those who ‘have not’. The story of a young man overcoming obstacles to achieve success another of his recurring themes.

But it is the jilted, embittered, and wealthy Miss Havisham living in a ruined mansion with her adopted daughter Estella, who fascinates and intrigues readers and leaves a lasting impression. She still wears her wedding dress as if frozen in time.

Twenty minutes to nine was the moment the letter arrived revealing the calumny of her fiance. There she was in her wedding gown, the wedding breakfast and adornments laid out in readiness, one satin slipper still to don. And there she remained. Since then, the wedding breakfast, the decorations, the room have been weighed down by dust and cobwebs, have been nibbled by decay and vermin till the house itself is crumbling. The fraudster Compeyson took her future and her fortune (although obviously not all of it) and might as well have taken her life.

Her revenge is Estella, whom she has fashioned into a weapon to destroy men and the hapless Pip is the whetstone on which Estella is to hone her skills…

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The addendum to “Expectations unfulfilled – Miss Havisham” states that

Dickens has trouble with consistency when he sets his novels in an earlier era. This is certainly evident with the ages and setting of Great Expectations. We’ve chosen to place Miss Havisham’s wedding in the early 1800s and have dressed her in a distressed, disintegrating Regency style gown.’

All of the costumes are original 19th-century outfits and so the ‘distressed’ signs are natural. Dressing Australia’s disclaimer that they’ve chosen what they think fits/suits each character rather than adhering strictly to the publication date of the novels, although many of the costumes coincide nicely.

Oliver Twist was published in 1837, but Nancy’s gown is from a later decade. It was chosen to represent the ‘tart with a heart‘ and Nancy’s notion of what is ladylike. Estella’s exquisite gown is from the late 1850s when Dickens was writing Great Expectations, published in 1860, although the story was set in an earlier era.

Madame Defarge – Knitting while heads rolled

Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities, a novel set in the time of the French Revolution is the embittered wife of a wine shop owner who owed his status and business to her revolutionary fervour.

She enjoyed knitting the names of the aristocrats she plotted to send to the guillotine and while weaving their names into Liberty Caps sat and watched their heads roll off the beheading machine.

Acknowledged as a leader of the Tricoteuse Movement, which evolved from the Market Women heroines who marched on Versailles and became ‘too uncontrollable and troublesome, and barred from the gallery of the National Convention and from political assemblies’ she proves to be devious and brutal even if her vengeful crusade facilitated by The Reign of Terror is justified.

Madame Defarge’s sister and unborn child, brother, brother-in-law and father were all killed by Darnay’s uncle, assisted by his father.


The green shot silk gown is ‘somewhat distressed’ polonaised over a black quilted satin petticoat. The Liberty Cap is pinned with a rosette and a rose. (Madame Defarge popped a rose in her cap warning that ‘outsiders’ were nearby and it was not safe for revolutionaries or the Tricoteuse to speak.)

Confronting the Ghosts of Christmas

A Christmas Carol probably ranks as one of the most read of Dickens’ novels along with Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. If not read, most English speaking people will still have heard of Scrooge or know what it means to call someone a scrooge!

A Christmas Carol sold out the minute it hit the bookstands in 1843 and has remained a favourite ever since. It has the feel-good factor – goodness triumphs over the mean and mean-spirited, adversity can be overcome, redemption is possible…

A man without conscience is not confronted by his own humanity, yet that is precisely what the Ghost of Christmas Past does to Scrooge. Look at how you used to be. Look at how others used to view you. Look at how you felt when facing rejection. Look at the beginnings of your loss of innocence when you chose greed over love.

A man entirely without compassion cares not when confronted by disturbing images of the distress of others, a man without imagination does not see what he might be missing. Yet that is precisely what the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge.

A man who is impervious to the consequences of his actions, who cares not that he has alienated all who might care for him, who does not mind a lonely, uncelebrated life and death will take no notice of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. And yet Scrooge does.

He has confronted his ghosts, is redeemed and regains his humanity and compassion.

The exhibition’s vision of the three ghosts as women enabled an interesting choice of costumes:

  • Christmas Past represented by a distressed Regency gown – a style from Scrooge’s youth
  • Christmas Present represented by a brown moire two-piece gown – a style from Scrooge’s present.
  • Christmas Yet to Come represented by a brown stripe taffeta gown of 1869 – a style yet to come.

There are so many characters from other novels with their stories summarised and the reasons for the choice of garments explained – please catch the exhibition before it closes.

Stand and ponder how these women lived – imagine riding in a carriage beside them, walking down a crowded London street navigating flower sellers, spruikers, beggars, even chimney sweeps… attending a dress fitting, visiting for high tea, soliciting, waiting for an errant husband or an abandoned lover, knitting while aristocrats lost their heads or haunting mean-spirited men!

Pity the poor seamstresses

Whenever I read about the world of Dickens and see the clothes of the era, the textiles, antiquated machinery, and the appalling factory conditions I am amazed at the complicated patterns, intricate beading and buttons, and delicate embroidery on the gowns, shawls and hats.

How resilient and talented must those tailors and seamstresses have been and yet we know workers in the clothing trades historically and even in current times are consistently some of the most abused, underpaid and exploited.

In much more modern times, my Aunt Chrissie was a tailoress in Scotland and eventually owned her own sewing school when she migrated to Australia. My older sister, Cate inherited Chrissie’s gift for sewing, crochet, knitting, embroidery… all handicrafts and I’ve written about her talent and her award-winning quilting.

One night, watching my sister sit and sew by a bedside lamp I was inspired to write a villanelle…

A Stitch in Time
Mairi Neil (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was standard practice for women to learn how to sew and for those who did not have to work or scrabble for their living, sitting doing crochet, cross-stitch and embroidery of Bible texts, the alphabet or seasonal motifs considered a genteel pastime.

The exhibition has a lot of interesting historical detail and invaluable research for any would-be writer. Information about waves of migrants bringing new skills, new technology and techniques and of course, fashion fads. Wonderful background fillers that may even inspire short stories or novels.

Stitched with Love

“The first printed patterns for stitching woolwork on canvas were produced in Berlin in the first half of the 19th century. The craft, which became known as Berlin woolwork was promoted at the Great exhibition of 1851 in London just as the middle classes were expanding and more women had the leisure to stitch, and just as new chemical dyes produced never before imagined colours.

Some of the most popular designs were for slipper vamps and uppers. Some, like these, were never attached and have survived for us to admire. A favourite dog stitched with love.”

 

 

Celebrating NAIDOC – Voice, Treaty, and Truth long overdue

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Image from the official Naidoc site https://www.naidoc.org.au/get-involved/2019-theme

Warning: Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people are advised this post may contain names and images of deceased people.

I couldn’t let this week pass without celebrating NAIDOC, especially since the message is such an important one for all Australians to heed.

We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future. The Indigenous voice of this country is over 65,000 plus years old.

They are the first words spoken on this continent. Languages that passed down lore, culture and knowledge for over millennia. They are precious to our nation.

It’s that Indigenous voice that includes know-how, practices, skills and innovations – found in a wide variety of contexts, such as agricultural, scientific, technical, ecological and medicinal fields, as well as biodiversity-related knowledge.  They are words connecting us to country, an understanding of country and of a people who are the oldest continuing culture on the planet.

And with 2019 being celebrated as the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages, it’s time for our knowledge to be heard through our voice.

For generations, we have sought recognition of our unique place in Australian history and society today. We need to be the architects of our lives and futures.

For generations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have looked for significant and lasting change.

Voice. Treaty. Truth. were three key elements to the reforms set out in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. These reforms represent the unified position of First Nations Australians.

https://www.naidoc.org.au/get-involved/2019-theme

 

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map of Aboriginal Australia and the different ‘countries’, First Australians Gallery, National Museum Canberra

Unfortunately, because of circumstances beyond my control, I haven’t attended any events this year as in the past, but as I continue to organise the house in preparation for full retirement, I unearthed newspaper clippings and articles on various subjects, that I kept for research or out of interest.

Revisiting this treasure trove stirred a lot of memories of connection with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples since my university days and involvement in the first Aboriginal Embassy, 1972.

I’ve spent several days of reflection thinking about what I’d write today.

It’s sobering to remember that it was only in 1975 that the one-day acknowledgement of National Aborigines Day became a week-long celebration with diverse activities to acknowledge our past, examine our present and hopefully look toward a better future.

Whose Voice?

Among the pile of paper, I must decide to scan or throw out, there are many book reviews, opinion pieces and essays written by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as well as academic or investigative reports by non-indigenous writers.

However, the realisation that there has been some progress made is tempered by the current Federal Government’s reluctance to consider a true voice in parliament for First Australians and its outright rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Broaden Your Knowledge About Australia and Its History/Herstory

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Aboriginal language map

This is also the International Year of Indigenous Languages – a United Nations observance in 2019 with aims to raise awareness of the consequences of the endangerment of Indigenous languages across the world and to establish a link between language, development, peace, and reconciliation.

The traditional owners of Melbourne are people from the Kulin Nation, with surrounding groups including the Woiworung and Boonwurrung (the Mordialloc traditional owners) and you can learn some words here.

Please check out two blogs I follow for reviews of the work of current indigenous authors and plenty of other interesting information: Lisa Hill’s ANZ LitLovers LitBlog and Bill Holloway’s the Australian Legend.

Last year, I visited Canberra and the National Museum, which has some great exhibitions as a starting point for those seeking knowledge and understanding:

empathy, not sympathy; acceptance not tolerance.

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At the entrance of the National Museum is a magnificent set of sculptures of the Bogong Moth, acknowledging the cultural traditions of the Aboriginal peoples who lived in the ACT prior to the European invasion and settlement.

 

 

What do our First People mean by Country?

Almost every public ceremony at all levels of government now includes a ‘welcome to country’.  If you wonder why or don’t know how to explain it to visitors, an explanation follows.

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Country’ is more than just the name of a place. When used by the Aboriginal people it is about a connection to all aspects of the land; landscape, ecology, spirituality, seasonal rhythms, people and culture.

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a wall capturing the thoughts of Aboriginal visitors

 

 

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For most of us, everything we read about our First People is either white/colonial/European perceptions of Aborigines or Aboriginal perceptions of themselves.

To read Aboriginal writing allows Aborigines to speak for themselves and state their view of Australian history.

In 2019, there is a wealth of Aboriginal writing to choose from including poets, creative writers, non-fiction and academia.

Albeit almost two decades ago, in his book, Writing from the Fringe: A Study of Modern Aboriginal Literature, Hyland House, Melbourne 1990, Mudrooroo Narogin divides Aboriginal history into five periods:

  1. From the Beginning to 1788: the time of the dreaming, before the coming of the Europeans.
  2. The Time of the Invasion(s): Aboriginal culture is threatened and is forced to adapt.
  3. The Utter Conquering of the Aboriginal Peoples: many of the old ways of communication are destroyed or drastically changed.
  4. The Colonial Period: outright oppression gives way to paternalism, then to assimilation.
  5. The Period of Self-Determination: dating from the Referendum in 1967 and the Whitlam government in the early 1970s – still continuing…

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Evidence of early Aboriginal habitation of the continent includes bones uncovered at Lake Mungo in south-eastern Australia and the sites of volcanoes, such as those at Tower Hill, near Melbourne.

The oldest continuing culture in the world dates back 50,000 – 60,000 years depending on what archaeological discoveries you choose to focus on.

What we know now is that Aborigines comprised many language groups, each with their own country. They created a network of overland commerce, developed ingenious ways of finding water and food in deserts, were expert trappers and fishers, skilled herbalists and farmers with a hundred different plant foods to supplement a diet of meat, fish, eggs and insects.

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Colonial Invasion Without a Treaty

From the late 18th century, British and other Europeans arrived on the shores of this continent, some willingly, others with no or little choice: – officers, soldiers and sailors of the Crown, convicted felons, free men and women searching for economic opportunity and a new life or fresh start.

They built towns on Aboriginal land tended and shaped over thousands of years and so began the Frontier Wars and decades of conflict over the sovereignty of the land.

There never was a treaty or proper recompense for the shameful land theft but hopefully, this will be rectified soon. At least the State of Victoria is working towards a treaty.

Aboriginal writers of note during the 1960s and 70s argued for Aboriginal land rights and self-determination. People like Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) and Kevin Gilbert brought an Aboriginal voice to wider audiences. Both of these wonderful poets died in 1993 – a tragic loss to Australian writing.

Truth Telling

A newspaper clipping I have from The Sunday Herald, August 20, 1989, has a story by Brett Wright titled, Our Forgotten War. This challenges the lie that Aborigines didn’t fight for their country or were always the victims.

” John Lovett, Aboriginal Advisor and former elder of the  Kerrupjmara clan, surveys the stony ruins of a lost culture.

“This is one here,’ he says, standing in a ring of weathered rocks, barely discernible in a volcanic landscape strewn with boulders. Further afield, at the edge of a drained swamp known as Lake Gorrie, are the remains of stone fish traps, used to catch eels when the lake flooded.

Historians say the ruin is almost certainly the base camp of a group of Aboriginal guerrilla fighters who fought the squatters in the black version of Vietnam: the Eumeralla War of the 1840s.

Records show the resistance to white settlement was intense and bloody in Victoria’s Western District. The 1838-39 drought left the Aboriginals short of food and water, and they were forced to drive off the squatters.

In 1842, two clan leaders, Tarerarer and Tyoore, nicknamed Cocknose and Jupiter, led attacks on stations around Eumeralla River, near Macarthur. They attacked shepherds and took their sheep for food.

The Eumeralla War had begun. An unknown number of lives were lost on both sides, as the attack led to fierce reprisals by the settlers. One of the raiding parties from the Nillangundidji tribe numbered 150.

“The tactics used were very similar to those used by the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War,” Mr Lovett said.

… concentrating their attacks on settlers who had taken up land around sacred sites, the Lake Gorrie guerrillas were very successful… the campaign continued for two years until native police killed Jupiter and Cocknose. With the leaders gone, the resistance movement faded.

“What we were fighting for was to survive, to maintain and keep our traditional areas,” said Mr Lovett …(who) believe sites such as Lake Gorrie should be recognised. “It’s relevant for white and black people to know the history of Australia.’

Fast forward 20 years and a lot more truth about how the invasion and settlement of Australia played out debunks peddled myths that the Aborigines didn’t fight for their land or try and repel the invaders.

For more on Eumeralla and other Victorian sites of massacres and conflict check out this website on Australia’s Frontier Wars.

Wikipedia has more information specifically on Eumeralla and an article from The Sydney Morning Herald, August 10, 2013, A Forgotten war, A Haunted Land.

Perhaps the greatest lie that I was taught at school regarding Aborigines was that there were no Aborigines left in Tasmania after Trugannini died. The National Museum has a fantastic exhibition detailing the cultural heritage of the Tasmanian First People.

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There are many stories showing the diversity and richness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and the most compelling are those of resistance, resilience, cultural adaptation, creativity and leadership.

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Yarning Circle

There is a lot to take in when you walk through the galleries devoted to Australian history and culture and so it’s a relief to sit and rest in a special place designed to help you relax, reflect, and yarn. And yes, you can recharge your mobile phone, if like mine the battery is low because the camera worked overtime!

 

 

Yarning circles and gathering circles are important places. They are where stories and knowledge can be shared in a caring environment that’s relaxed and comfortable. With our bodies, we include ourselves in the listening and learning that is being gifted.

Nancy Bamaga, Thabu/Samu

We could do with yarning circles in every home and community.

 

 

Mr Bailey’s Minder -a play about growing old disgracefully, being disgracefully old… and something much deeper!

noticeboard for play

On Saturday, I went to the matinee session of the Mordialloc Theatre Company’s latest play at the Shirley Burke Theatre, Parkdale.

My theatre buddy, Lisa cancelled because of ill-health but I am glad I didn’t let that or the wintry weather, which caused sudden and severe squalls, to convince me to stay at home in the warmth – although it was tempting!

Now I’m ‘retired’ it is easier to stay at home, especially in winter and by the demographics I’ve observed who support the MTC and the smattering of empty seats on Saturday, the cold weather and perhaps the lethargy of age took its toll, which is a pity.

The play was enjoyable, the ambience in the theatre welcoming, and you get free coffee/tea and biscuits at the interval.

In fact, if so inclined you can buy a glass of wine or sherry before the play starts. Saturday definitely, chilly so I’m not surprised many people took that option.

See this play and support your local theatre

Mr Bailey’s Minder is on until the end of the week!

theatre ticket

Of the three productions I’ve seen this year, this definitely gets a thumbs up from me and considering the response of the audience, others also agree.

  • Maybe it is because this is the first one this year by an Australian playwright and so the actors didn’t have fake American or Canadian accents.
  • Maybe it’s because I can relate more to the themes which are not only current and relevant but emotionally engaging.
  • Maybe it’s because of the actors – apart from a bit of nervousness at the beginning, their interactions were believable and entertaining.

This is the promo blurb:


blurb for play

However, discussing the play at the interval with one of the volunteers another lady joined the conversation and when I said the subject matter was interesting and topical she said, ‘Ah yes, elder abuse.’

A reflection perhaps because we are in the middle of a Royal Commission into how we treat people in Aged Care and there are stories galore about abuse in the media.

But Mr Bailey’s Minder is much more than a story about someone growing old and being mistreated or fearing mistreatment.

All the major characters in the play have fears and emotional scars – not just Mr Bailey.

We are all ageing or know someone who is and if we live long enough must face declining health and death.

We all have or will have a life to reflect on with good and bad decisions, successful or unsuccessful relationships, haunting memories of the warm glow kind or filled with regret.

Many of us have had experience with someone in the family coping with alcoholism and/or dementia and family estrangement is common too.

The play mines a rich field of life experiences.

Therese, as the title suggests, is the ‘Minder’ or carer, and frequently, takes centre stage. Her story, one of a need to belong and be valued – and to value herself – a contrast to Leo’s life of celebrity status where being a ‘famous artist’ resulted in Leo overvaluing himself! (as others did too!)

scenes from play 2

Leo Bailey (Eric Hayes) is a drunken ‘has-been’ artist suffering from decades of alcohol abuse and self-indulgent misbehaviour. He’s offended, hurt or neglected friends, several ex-wives and all but one of his children. His past is confronting – what he can remember of it, or how he remembers it, which varies depending on his mood or awareness.

Now he is facing death – and he is astute enough to know it will probably be alone.  He must also cope with the realisation that he’s lost some of his artistic abilities yet boasts how valuable his signature still is – even on a blank piece of paper (be intrigued).

Only his daughter, Margo (Juliet Hayday) continues to visit him and manage his affairs, despite being subjected to a barrage of abuse every time she steps into Leo’s home.

Margo has remained dutiful although she can’t escape the bitterness of unhappy memories of childhood spoilt by her celebrity father’s behaviour.

In the opening scene, the much-maligned Margo meets Therese (Julia Landberg), a young woman desperate for work and the latest in a long list of Leo Bailey’s minders.

We learn how ill Leo is, about his obnoxious behaviour, plus how dementia has heightened his disagreeableness.

Margo who works in investment banking does not ‘pull any punches’ regarding her father. In fact, she repeats the well-worn cliches –

  • Old people abandoned in nursing homes must look no further than their own past behaviour.
  • Abusive drunks reveal their true self – it’s never just the drink talking.
  • Adults must take responsibility for their behaviour whether they’re a celebrity or not

Therese, cagey about her past, is worried Margo will check her references. She doesn’t expect to get the job, yet in her desperation behaves alternately, belligerent and defensive. She is feisty and a survivor.

Leo comes downstairs, he is at his alcohol-sodden best, insulting Margo and Therese and accusing them of wanting to take his home and independence.

Disagreeable is an understatement.

(Interestingly, “Leo’s” lines or actions alternated between outrageous, wily astuteness and downright insulting, but a group in the audience loudly appreciated Eric’s performance – indicative that the actor who is a Life member of MTC has a following!)

The final major player to add to the emotionally scarred cast appears later.

Karl (Aaron Townley) a tradie who comes to remove a mural and repair a wall. His life is as difficult and broken as the others. He’s paying off a debt caused by an ex-business partner and recovering from a marriage breakdown caused by same debt.

Needy and lonely,  Karl continues to visit to do odd jobs after establishing a friendship with Leo and Therese who manages to get her charge to give up drinking and begin to make amends to those he has mistreated by writing letters of apology. They even start going out and visiting parks and museums.

Of course, there are sub-plots and a minor character (also played by Aaron) who will make your blood boil and an all-important twist that good drama provides.

The necessary conflict to keep an audience interested is delivered – with a couple of realistic physical scenes, which had me worried because Eric wasn’t using make-up to age!

Each character also revealed an inner conflict through actions or dialogue at some stage.

theatre program

The Playwright, Debra Oswald. 

Wikipedia tells us that Debra Oswald is a screenwriter, playwright and fiction author. She was the co-creator and head writer for series 1-5 of the award-winning Channel Ten series Offspring

Mr Bailey’s Minder and The Peach Season both premiered at Griffin Theatre Company. Mr Bailey’s Minder toured nationally in 2006 and premiered in the United States in 2008 at The Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. 

When it was first released, a review said, the play

grapples with how much latitude we’re prepared to give artists we consider to be blessed with some kind of genius. It also explores the separate journeys of three individuals committed to creating a place where they can belong.

The play may also promote discussion about past behaviour and caring for ageing parents whether they were celebrities or not.

The worship of celebrity, of course, seems to have intensified in recent years. A prime example is in the acting profession where TV creates celebrities frequently, with actors who study the craft and perform on stage often overlooked or not given the recognition, they may deserve.

In this social media age celebrities flourish, however, in the future they may pay the price for their behaviour much earlier or burn out quicker.

The publicity social media gives that makes it easier to make celebrity status, also makes it easier to punish or shatter a celebrity. And with the Internet – everything is on record whether it has been edited, doctored, embellished, made up…

Plus we have an ageing population. Debra’s play will remain topical and relevant for some time.

Stagecraft and Set Design

scene from play 1

The set design and construction depicting Bailey’s disintegrating home above Sydney Harbour is eye-catching and memorable. Martin Gibbs, the Director and set designer is to be congratulated.

The various scene changes facilitated seamlessly by three exits – a door through to a kitchenette, the ‘front’ door and a staircase that led to the bedrooms and much-mentioned bathroom. The music accompanying each scene change setting the relevant mood and the lighting used to great effect to signal the passing of time and a new day.

So, add a bit of spice or emotional angst to your day and catch a session of Mr Bailey’s Minder you won’t be disappointed and it will do what all good art does – make you confront various aspects of the human condition – especially your own.

PS

A note of caution – if like me, you have experienced a loved one whose personality changed because of dementia, ageing, or a combination of both, or have experienced family estrangement, make sure you have a tissue in your pocket… you never know what triggers an emotional moment… this play just might hit the spot.

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A National Writing Day Motivates the Muse

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I’m on holiday from classes until July 30th and in my FB feed the Scottish Poetry Library announced June 26th 2019 as ‘International Writing Day’ with a link to https://www.nationalwritingday.org.uk/

Whether international or national – it is wonderful to have a writing day and that’s what I did, sharing Wednesday with a dear friend first met through the Mordialloc Writers’ Group.

Sitting at the kitchen table, we talked about writing goals and then wrote some poetry.

We both had discovered old notebooks containing poems written years ago and discussed how many versions need to be written to ‘get it right’ – and how it never is!

Have we improved or were those early words better? Did the words come easier then? What makes a ‘good’ poem?

We both agreed that in some cases, our poems recorded life and how we felt – a bit like journalling and many poems reminded us of past events we’d forgotten.

Other poems explored language, exercised our imagination, captured a moment or were a bit of fun …

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Searching for Words and Meaning…
Mairi Neil

In writing class
we explore language
seek living words
lively words
alive words
volume high
sentencing each other
to work it out
or perhaps not
just listen, absorb and be
explore the language
search for words
taught in childhood
read in books
overheard on the train…
volume doesn’t matter
one sentence or two
from me or you
language exploration
job description
happiness prescription
research for a living
search for meaning
out-search a life
my sentence
to teach
writing in class…

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Port Campbell Sunset With Mary Jane
Mairi Neil, 1995

We stand together to watch the sun go down
sharing a marvellous miracle –
the silvery-white ball now a shade of pink,
a glowing mandarin, yellow tint, then red
and settling seagulls strutting by the water
appear to blush, blending with the foaming tide
flowing in with a rush

The fiery sphere radiates brilliant orange
colour spreads across the sky, the orb starts to
slip
slowly
seawards
silently
sinking

This forehead and eyebrows of a sleepy giant
jaundiced
floppy
fluid
flaccid
pliant

Until suddenly, the sky explodes aflame
our hearts pound
the sky astounds
The sun a misshapen balloon
Disappearing fast
going
gone
too soon…

A semi-darkened sky of colourful pools, puddles,
mere splashes mid-air
Was that brilliant display ever really there?

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A Note To Kingston Council
Mairi Neil, 1999

(responding to a report in the newspaper of a resident weeping as a gum tree aged 100 years old was chopped down to make way for new development)

A concerned citizen stood weeping
wringing her hands in despair
but the chainsaws grind and gobble
so another block’s laid bare
gum trees go that once grew tall
shading homes for a hundred years
those living links to the past
chopped down despite her pleas

Eucalyptus gums are indigenous
native grasses and bushes too
home to a thousand insect species
and native birds becoming so few
where one house stood in a garden
two units are built – or more
imported trees, shrubs in fancy tubs
surrounded by a concrete pour

Developers have their dreams
And indigenous trees get in the way
‘Clear the land of all vegetation –
especially big trees,’ what they say!
Bulldozing through regulations
and done with unseemly speed
‘We own the land now and have rights,’
but neighbours see only greed.

Some developers say they deserve thanks
After all, they’ve ‘improved’ the land
sanitised lawns introduced boutique trees
concreted paths added buildings grand!
Individual rights must be paramount
because the ‘ME’ mentality rules
environmentalists caring for community
are soft-hearted, irrelevant fools.

Who cares about rangy, old gums
that provided shade and privacy too
Who cares about a balanced ecosystem
and that birds and butterflies are few?
If YOU care about what is happening
In community streets and suburbs
Then speak up, get involved, write letters –
and counteract the Real Estate blurbs!

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Winter Stillness
Mairi Neil, 1996

A winter’s morn
white mist hides the sun
shrouding treetops
birds twitter unseen
Was it the coldest night?

A walk to the station
familiar path unseen
cold air, chilled bones
a bleak beginning
to another day of toil

At the railway station
commuters huddle in silence
but aboard in warmth a thaw
familiar faces smile greetings
cheerful chatter melts winter blues

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The World Loves PowerPoint
Mairi Neil, 1996.

I got a CDRom to make an interactive PPP
this multimedia task completely confounds me
I sit with mouth agape marvelling at the show
from Encarta ’96 – so much I don’t yet know

I don’t know how computers work
the science and technology a wonder
the subliminal flickering of the cursor
disappears off screen – oh, my blunder?
Clicks and movement directs this brain
finger muscles used again and again
activating programs seems a breeze
but this technology can be a tease
my hands don’t appear to accept the hype
as on the keyboard they stumble to type
and repeat out-dated typewriting rules
trying grammar and spelling used at school

I got a CDRom to make an interactive PPP
This multimedia task completely confounds me
Bill Gates and Microsoft what have you started –
my confidence and sanity swiftly departed!

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A Winter Walk in Woodland
Mairi Neil, 1997

The winter day cold but not drear
unusually, warm for this time of year
we choose a walk through the woods
and frost-hardened leaves crack
the path piled with fallen snow
our boots stain the pristine track

Children run ahead to climb steep hills
curbing their enthusiasm a battle of wills
they’re keen to explore and with innocence
embrace the wild creatures in this place
but most are hiding, nowhere to be seen
hibernating while of summer they dream.

The children lament the ‘waterfall’ too small
a mere trickle of water, no cascade at all
plus modern development is eating the wood
motorway and shops gobble habitat for good
landscapes changed, altered beyond repair
rivers dried – the trees weep in despair

At an old canal, hopeful enthusiast rebuild
boxes to protect dormice with optimism filled
Mother Nature resilient, she can adapt and adjust
but nurturing people’s help a definite must
tiny snowdrops gleam – such a welcome sight
of unspoilt beauty to hold in memory tight.

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I Never Thought
Mairi Neil, 1998

When we first met
I never thought
we would lie side by side
in a large comfortable bed
and not drown in passion
maturity and familiarity
take their toll

Our bodies still tingle
when hands caress
but we have grown
comfortable and content
seeking thrills less often

It is enough to know
desire and satisfaction
still exist

I never thought
we would lie side by side
and talk of mundane matters…
doors to be painted
garden beds to be weeded
leaky taps to be fixed
seams to be mended…
yet we do not rush
to start a project
or worry a task
is incomplete

It is enough to know
there is tomorrow

I never thought
spending a morning
with you puzzling to solve
a cryptic crossword
and I puzzling to
write a poem
would create a warm inner glow
provide contentment and pleasure

Our past… and imagined future
flows easily between us
Our love has a comfortable silence
as well as public vows

It is enough to know that you are here.

 

 

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I Love Cooking (after Dr Seuss)
Mairi Neil

I love cooking, I love the smell
I love it more when it turns out swell
I love old recipes, they are the best
I gather ingredients and begin with zest.

I love my oven, it’s electric. If it was gas I’d be sick.
I love my bench top, granite and wide, equipment sits side by side.
I think my cooking is okay, there’s not much more I can say.
I’m not an expert like some boast, I’ve been known to burn the toast!
There’s people who just love their food, always categorising, bad or good.
I eat to live, variety’s not king, a few favourite recipes are my thing.

I’m happy to bake my apple cake. I am.
Can even manage scones, cream and jam.
I love to peel, dice, chop and knead.
It’s from cleaning up I want to be freed.

I love cooking – it’s a necessary evil – we have to eat.
But boy I’m glad – really glad – Nandos has opened up the street

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Here’s to more National Writing days!

 

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Melbourne’s Heritage Buildings – Do You Have a Story About Meeting Under the Clocks at Flinders Street?

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Flinders Street Station June 2019

The other day I got a call from a writer friend who suggested it was the time to keep a long-promised date to have lunch at Pellegrini’s.

We met when we were both involved as volunteers in an Intergenerational Project for the City of Kingston and had talked about this outing just before the dreadful attack of terror last year and the murder of Sisto Malaspina, a co-owner of a place regarded as one of Melbourne’s must-experience institutions.

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Lee had written about her childhood half a century ago, the friendship with the owners and staff at Pellegrini’s, memories of being a migrant in Melbourne, and of her mother taking her regularly to this Italian restaurant for pasta and other familiar delicacies reminiscent of a Europe they’d left behind.

Our lunch date would begin by meeting ‘under the clocks at Flinders Street Station,’  a place, where I’m sure almost every Melburnian this century and most of last century, has used as a meeting place at one time or other.

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one group of clocks

Flinders Street Station, an iconic building holding many stories within its walls and parts of the interior, especially the upper floor Ballroom – a place everyone wanted to see when I first volunteered for Open House Melbourne a decade ago because like other sites during the last weekend in July, the public rarely have access.

My lunch date story a salutary lesson to not delay plans because we never know what is around the corner and often don’t appreciate a person or place until they’re gone, which is a nice segue into a story about the heritage restoration of Flinders Street Station…

Alas, as mentioned, parts have been closed off to the public for many years because lack of proper maintenance made some of the building unsafe and until final restoration work is done (an expensive, time-consuming process) it may be many more years before the whole building is restored to its original glory.

 

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The Restoration of Flinders Street Station

On May 29, I attended a free seminar in the Victorian Parliamentary Library by heritage architecture expert, Peter Lovell, on the Restoration of Flinders Street Station. Peter’s talk and the venue fascinating.

Access to the parliamentary South Library was appreciated, a place I’d only seen in passing, while on a quick tour of Parliament House, during the Centenary of the Women’s Petition for the vote.

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talk over and chairs being stacked

The Victorian Parliament Building also a Melbourne icon and although it has received more maintenance attention than Flinders Street Station, the restoration process is drawn out for this building too.

The day of Peter’s talk wintry with intermittent heavy showers and a biting wind, which probably explains why not all those who booked turned up, despite repeated emails to advise if ‘no show’ because there was a ‘waiting list’.

Peter also advised to allow twenty minutes to ‘go through security at the front entrance’ but there would be ‘a welcome desk in the vestibule’.

I arrived five not twenty minutes early because of unavoidable delays on the Frankston Train Line. (ah, the irony!)

My demeanour must have registered panic because the young woman on security duty said, ‘Take your time, calm down,’ as I fumbled to show the email with the details of the event, and get out my mobile phone and perfume – two items on a ‘must show’ list.

The security process reminiscent of airport security and sadly a sign of the times and upgrading the old building to accommodate new security technology a priority. How you do that in keeping with nineteenth-century architecture and expectations of access from the general public, no easy task.

Hurrying, and feeling guilty about being late I dropped my handbag, partially spilt the contents on the ground and held up a queue of others also wanting to enter via the public entrance of Parliament House. (Murphy’s Law obviously working and I could hear my wee Irish Mum’s voice, ‘more haste less speed’…)

Not a great start to the event!

Fortunately, the promised Welcome Desk was indeed welcoming and despite the tone of the emails suggesting non-negotiable punctuality, a friendly, and chatty attendant escorted me to the Library where I had a good fifteen minutes to feast on my surroundings and relax by eyeing off the floor to ceiling shelves!

The books eleven shelves high above a bench with two shelves below, so no wonder there was a ladder leaning against the wall and the top two shelves empty.

My imagination kicked in, reminding me of that scene in The Mummy with a chain reaction of crashing shelves in the Cairo Library because the librarian over-reaches,  wobbles on the ladder and the shelves of books fall like dominoes.

The sign for the seminar read Foundations – Architecture with influence – Flinders Street Restoration Project and then my eyes wandered to a variety of books, their titles almost jumping out at me:

  • A coffee table-sized, Unemployable
  • Blair – a thick hardback
  • A big blue tome titled, Australian Poetry
  • Another hardback, Paul Kelly
  • A hardback book of Cycling on an easily accessible bottom shelf…

Brought back to reality the guest speaker was introduced by Caroline, the Parliamentary Librarian…

Restoring Heritage Buildings A Specialist Field

I sat in the front row ‘all the better to hear’ the talk by the chief architect of the firm responsible for restoring the outside of iconic Flinders Street Railway Station. The seminar was the third of a three-part series on Architecture Restoration of Significance, the analysis and reuse of older buildings.

Peter’s firm specialising in Heritage – he surveyed Parliament House – furniture, fittings and the building – ascertained its conservation status and how to retain the important historical aspects and ensure it can function in the modern era before major renovations occurred.

His resume is impressive: recently the Windsor Hotel, Princess Theatre, Palais St Kilda and the State Library; also the Essendon Airport Control Tower, Wilson Hall Melbourne University, Melbourne Laneways, Sidney Myer Music Bowl and now Flinders Street Station.

Many important landmarks since European settlement that are valued by the public have received Peter’s attention to detail and extensive research to ensure what can be restored is done so to enrich our history and heritage.

All good presenters put their audience at ease and Peter was no exception, jokingly referring to the current series on SBS Great British Railway Journeys introduced by ex-Tory politician Michael Portillo. 

Peter apologised for the absence of a bright jacket to show off his knowledge of railway history! (Portillo’s signature dress code is an outlandish colourful blazer and each series he works his way through the colours of the rainbow.)

This led Peter into a segue on the various colours of the paintwork of Flinders Street Station. The paintwork appears different during the day and night and over the years.

In the 1980s the paint colour used for Flinders Street was investigated and fashion consultants of the day said the colour chosen was ‘awful‘.

Now, 30 years since that paint exploration, the current restoration began and the paint colour harks back to the original colour scheme.

The initial investigation revealed a failure of the fabric externally with extensive structural cracking. When the project began, the Christchurch earthquake had just happened therefore the Government’s main concern was the stability of the building.

There was an update of the Conservation Management Plan and the significance of this was what could or could not be changed.

The track level and platforms and range of shops along Flinders Street – all spaces were analysed. The ceilings contained the largest collection of press metal work in Australia.

Flinders Street Station

… is of National social, architectural, aesthetic and technical significance as one of the landmark buildings of Melbourne…possibly the most well known and heavily used public building in Melbourne…providing an imposing entry and exit point for thousands of travellers every day of the year…

The platforms, the ramps, stairs, subways and concourse, have been used by millions of commuters since 1910. Except for unsympathetic alterations to the ramps up to Swanston Street made in 1983, all these elements are intact and considered an integral part of Melbourne’s historic character. Even minor details, such as the ‘do not spit’ signs, the large mirror on the ladies toilets off the Elizabeth Street subway and the original timber signboards, are widely known and enjoyed.

The steps of the main arch facing into the city became a convenient and popular meeting point known as “under the clocks” and is still popular today. While the opening of the city loop in 1980 has reduced the dominant role of the station, it is still an important destination and meeting point.

As a large and imposing public building located at the major symbolic gateway into the city, on one of the most important intersections, it is a familiar and well loved landmark, and the view of the building from Flinders Street has become one of the most photographed and instantly recognisable images of Melbourne.

Heritage Council, Victoria, 2008

In 2017, while volunteering for Open House Melbourne at the Nicholson Building, I got a great bird’s eye view of the preparations to paint and restore Flinder Street Station.

Who designed Flinders Street?

The railway architect, Mr James Fawcett, and railway engineer, HP Ashworth won a competition to design a railway station for Melbourne. Fawcett, according to Peter was a ‘one horse wonder’ because he doesn’t design anything else major as an architect. Flinders Street Station is broadly Edwardian Free Style, the main building is strongly influenced by French public architecture of the 1900s, and is the only such example in Melbourne.

Fawcett was a watercolour painter of some renown – check out the Fawcett Collection at the State Library. He also designed Woodlands Homestead, a prefabricated house and was ‘a run-of-the-mill domestic architect of conventional Edwardian bungalows‘.

However, a number of suburban and country railway stations were probably also designed by Fawcett & Ashworth, such as Glenferrie, Essendon and Caulfield because they were built between 1900 and early 1920s and employ a similar, but far less elaborate, architectural style.

Peter showed slides of some old paintings of Flinders Street as a tiny train station in early Melbourne.  Other paintings showed the historical development and the station growing to have original platforms and the Degraves Street stop.

In 1899, the government held a competition to design Flinders Street and Fawcett, an employee won so there was a suggestion it was ‘an inside job’.

This was the period of the famous Thomas Bent MP, later Premier of Victoria (seen as corrupt in some people’s eyes and referred to as ‘bent by name and bent by nature’…)  Bent was certainly a colourful character and left a much-talked-about legacy especially regarding the railways. There are stories about him in two of Mordialloc Writers’ Group anthologies! (Scandalous Bayside, 2008; Off The Rails, 2012.)

scandalous bayside, anthology 6, 2008anthology 8, off the rails, 2012

Fawcett invested in art architecture, he liked innovation. In the original design, the train halls were supposed to be covered and go East-West like London’s. However, cost-cutting meant covered train halls abandoned and their direction changed to North-South.

A large multiple-arch iron roof over the platforms, with an enormous glass wall facing the river, was never built. This aspect of the design was in the manner of the grand European and English railway stations, except that the arches were to have been across the platforms, rather than along.

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You can just see part of the original covered roof to the left in this photo of the entrance to Flinders Street today

It was a grand design though and the fourth floor was to be commercial offices – and whether these offices should be private businesses or only for government and the railway was a bone of contention. (Nothing new there politicians still argue over commercial versus public use and profit and investment, financial return …)

The station was not completed until 1910 but built for commuters and had shops, canteen for workers, cafes, even a childcare centre… ahead of its time …

The office portion of the station is of social and historical significance for having incorporated extensive and heavily used public facilities. Large and convenient public toilets for women were provided at a time when such facilities were rare.

Apparently, in the 1920s it was the busiest railway station in the world. A claim with no mention of what other stations were considered for that honour and whether it encompassed a Eurocentric world view, Southern Hemisphere or included Asia!

Extensive facilities provided for the Victorian Railways Institute, which catered to the thousands of employees of the railways, as well as their families and friends. Located on the top floor, the Institute’s rooms included a Concert Hall under the main dome, a library, two classrooms and a gymnasium, a billiard room and a lecture hall at the Elizabeth Street end, which was converted to a Ballroom circa 1930.

Many of these facilities were available for hire by outside organisations and by the 1950s Flinders Street Station was home to 120 cultural social and sporting organisations, such as cat lovers, rose devotees, talented debaters and poetry lovers. This function continued until the Institute moved out in 1984.

I can remember attending the first Train Travellers Association meetings on the top floor in the late 1970s. These were the days of the old ‘red rattlers’, the Tait trains with their wooden panelling examples of Fawcett’s design work.

Carriages had leather straps hanging from the ceiling for standing passengers and too few seats catering for the postwar population explosion increasing the number of commuters travelling into the city each day.

Sadly, at the time I didn’t appreciate the heritage aspects of the upper floors!

The Train Travellers Association born out of the frustration and anger of commuters and guest speakers included Jim Fraser, Secretary of the Victorian Branch of the Railways Union (ARU) and the Shadow Transport Minister Steve Crabb.

They talked about their ideas on how to improve the Railways system, which had been badly neglected by various Liberal Governments who harboured a dream to sell the network off – one finally achieved by Jeff Kennett in 1992.

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There is no doubt that Flinders Street Railway Station was a major, stupendous building on its completion in 1910 and it still looks grand and impressive today.

A drawing of Melbourne in 1838 depicts Elizabeth Street as a creek, this is incorrect but because of the proximity of the River Yarra, Flinders Street Station buildings are on variable foundations and there was a creek flowing into the Yarra River. The proximity of the foundations to water provided challenges!

Flinders Street is basically a brick building but has attached timber elements. The timber wall cantilevered off the brick section. The timber tended to tip from the building. The original construction fraught with delays and difficulties over a decade, and scandals about incompetence led to a Royal Commission.

The base built of basalt and granite and the timber lining supported by load-bearing brick. It should have been a brick and sandstone exterior but the cost meant that was abandoned for bricked stucco.

A survey in 2015, despite budget constraints, demanded urgent repair work. There was major cracking on the roof and in some walls, people could be killed below if bricks dislodged. An inspection revealed the major culprit – blocked downpipes and a roof that had leaked for 30 years!

If only proper maintenance had been carried out at the time… I heard my Mum’s voice again, ‘a stitch in time saves nine’.

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Modern train carriages consider all commuters – design requirements very different from Fawcett’s imagination

Restoration Complex and Costly

The roof was intricate, a mixture of concrete, copper, corrugated iron – there were leaks everywhere, flashings buckled. Water damaged interiors could have been avoided and the cost of restoration halved if drains had been cleaned!

Internal work still has to be done and the slides Peter showed of the horrendous damage to the Ballroom/gymnasium, which had been used into the 1970s drew a collective gasp of horror from the audience. Timber rotted from neglect, decorative plaster ruined.

However, often it is not easy for any authority to argue for money for renovations if the public or even a small group with loud voices or influence consider it ‘a waste of time’ or ‘money is needed elsewhere’… but as every homeowner knows, you must look after your assets and budget for maintenance!

A scaffolding survey documented the process needed to restore the building and this was at ground level first so the estimate was $23 million. However, this cost blew out to $70 million when they discovered the damage to the roof and upper floors and walls.

The use of pressed metal, which includes ceilings in most office areas (in a huge variety of designs) as well as dados and friezes in some, is the most extensive in Victoria and the red painted, block fronted wall facing the platforms is the largest example of zinc cladding known in Australia.

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refurbished entrance at Flinders Street

After Christchurch, governments accept the earthquake threat is real and any major renovations or new buildings must acknowledge this threat. Initially, at Flinders Street, they planned to anchor the tower with tensile rods but it was not feasible to drill into the brickwork to anchor the building – this was deemed too disruptive and invasive. And not doable because of cavities in the brickwork.

Ingenuity and good tradespeople meant they found a way of reinforcing the roof structure. There were concrete slabs relied upon to hold the building together. The water damage and corrosion needed a new structural slab and waterproofing.

Before removal of the concrete slab, they built a bracing system to earthquake-proof the building. Seismic issues for old buildings are massive. All chimneys had to be braced – it doesn’t look elegant but the area is not accessible to the public and safety trumps elegance!

How to deal and manage risks without disrupting the running of the railways or putting commuters and the general public in danger?

A lot of the work was carried out at night where there was a three-hour opening of no train traffic! There were thousands of people involved in the project yet it was completed while the railways still operated.

The rail corridor a busy place and if a train stopped on the system it costs $50,000 an hour, therefore, they couldn’t afford to stop trains running.

Restoring the Clock Tower

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Taken 2014

The clock tower and the front steps are probably the most photographed parts of Flinders Street Station. Many of the marriages at St Paul’s on the diagonal corner make sure the station is in the background, the time of their wedding visible on the clock!

Restoring the clock tower the most challenging, requiring enormous anchoring and bracing. They used metal braces but kept the clock structure by inserting a concrete base/brace to anchor the tower. An extraordinary feat of engineering and architectural knitting of braces to the building.

The clock face had putty containing asbestos and they couldn’t salvage or reuse the glass. However, they sourced oval glass from Mexico after a worldwide search. The face is all laminated so it will not fall into the street.

Removing all the asbestos was a major challenge.

The zinc used in the pressed metal work was in good condition but it was a major campaign to restore where water had caused deformities. The repairs to the wall will now last for another 100 years.

Repointing the brickwork an exercise in patience and craftsmanship.

The use of red brick contrasted with coloured cement render, the use of banking (especially in the tower), and the grouping of windows vertically under tall arches shows the influence of American Romanesque Revival.

Salt coming through the brickwork ignored for too long and you can see the white stains. Despite several efforts, they still can’t remove the marks without major damage to bricks so abandoned the idea.

There was lots of exploration about various methods of repair, plenty of trial and error because it was heritage restoration and they were not replacing everything. the brief is to keep as much of the original as possible!

During the restoration they unravelled issues, in many cases, it was a discovery process but there was a great team of builders, engineers and tradespeople.

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plaster ceilings restored

They didn’t put graffiti coating on the paintwork because it would be too costly to keep replacing. The building has had eight or nine paintings over the years but original paint not good and streaked within seven years.

The building has always been painted the same combination of colours – creamy yellow, red south walls, green for windows.

Lead paint was an issue too. It had to be stripped off in a controlled environment or the decision made to leave as is and paint over.

South wall the best in the whole building.

There was a beautifully designed heating system, hydronic radiators but all pipes were covered in asbestos. They couldn’t risk removal or repair so cut off the radiators and sealed them to avoid asbestos drifting into Flinders Street and the Station via the vents.

The dangers of asbestos and working how to remove it safely is an issue for whoever renovates the interior.

Lighting improved colours – the interior of the dome was beautiful when cleaned. In the Ballroom, they stripped off the plasterwork and discovered pressed metal ceiling. They inserted a steel structure to seismic-proof the building but little interior work completed – that’s for the next stage of the project.

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cards made by mattirwin.com and sold at Parliament House – Flinders Street a tourist drawcard

Cracked balusters a badly seismic issue for tipping – rubber mouldy and new balusters made and pinned. Water penetrated through massive cornices.

They put in lead capping to conserve it although not these originally but had to rebuild moulding.

The stained glass magnificent designed by Fawcett because he was interested in art nouveau. Only modest replacements and it is hard to pick new panels, the rest were basically cleaned and conserved.

Refreshment rooms have glorious windows which needed epoxy repairs only  – on the first floor – not accessible yet.

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They were conscious that restoring the outside is only stage one and so they needed a storeroom because nothing that was removed was thrown out.

They even kept items left behind by workers over the years: 1950s watches, hats and other curios.  These are stored alongside ornamental plasterwork from the Ballroom. Each item labelled and stored.

Caroline gave me a special tour of the library at the end of Peter’s talk when I said it was my first visit. I loved the spiral staircase, the polished wooden doors, the magnificent ceiling and chandelier and ornamental work on columns and cornices –

Caroline answered my many questions and showed me the Reading Room, explained how one of the columns cleverly disguised the chimney for the fireplace and told me the pet name (which I have forgotten) they use for the plaster lion saved from a previous renovation.

 

It was an informative and friendly afternoon. History and heritage two of my loves and Caroline invited me back – an offer I hope to take up sooner rather than later!

On the way out, I passed students in the hall and thought how lucky they were to have a tour – I was an adult before I ventured inside the parliament building and have spent more time on the steps demonstrating than wandering inside!

But as I walked past the portraits of premiers I stopped beside my favourite – Joan Kirner – the artist has caught her twinkling eyes and her over-riding quality of kindness.

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Six Degrees of Separation

Joan was a trailblazer for women’s rights and started her public life as an activist in the Croydon area in the 60s.  I attended Croydon High and my mother admired Joan, greatly. Joan later became President of the Victorian Federation of State School Parents Clubs and later still the first female Premier of Victoria!

As I wandered into the foyer still reminiscing, I bumped into two other activist friends for women’s rights. Both were past speakers for the Union of Australian Women’s Southern Branch: Fiona McCormack then CEO of Domestic Violence Victoria but now the new Victims of Crime Commissioner for Victoria and Robyn Dale, Office Manager for Nick Staikos, MP for Bentleigh.

Fiona is the daughter-in-law of a longtime, dear friend; Robyn’s son, Tim went to school with my daughter, Anne and Robyn’s boss, Nick Staiko is also President of Godfrey Street Community House where I taught creative writing for seven years!

Another first added when I visited the Dining Room in Parliament House and shared a cuppa! Of course, we talked about politics and women’s rights…

Mum and Joan would approve!

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Advance Australia Where? A Question Still to Be Answered.

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I’m still coming to terms with the election result – as are about 50% of the population!

I was never confident of an overwhelming victory but I couldn’t believe that after six years of dysfunction, failed policies, three prime ministers and scandal after scandal of corruption and incompetence, and going to the voters with literally no policies or vision to solve climate change and social inequality that the LNP Coalition would be rewarded.

It was disappointing too that their lies were rarely challenged and the dodgy figures about unemployment – insecure work, underemployment, casual and contract work and the fact that one hour’s work a week is enough to move you from unemployment statistics –  a shameful state of affairs for a wealthy country like Australia.

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I’m a writer and writing teacher but how do I find the words to explain how saddened and shocked I am about the election result? Recommend strong verbs of course – many friends have already expressed their opinions:

gutted, shattered, crushed, appalled, stunned, alarmed, disturbed… disappointed or annoyed aren’t strong enough.

The Liberal candidate in Isaacs, my electorate, was disendorsed for posting hate speech in an ‘appalling anti-muslim rant’.

Yet, as I scrutineered for Mark Dreyfus QC MP, I couldn’t believe the hundreds of people who still voted for the dumped candidate!

My goodness, are there that many racists living in Mordialloc?’ declared Nola, my fellow scrutineer.

‘Apparently!’

Now the election is over, we have other similarly disendorsed Liberal candidates going to take their seat in parliament, no doubt under the auspices of the party that preselected them originally.

What happened to ethics and morality?

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Election 2019 – A Failure For Fairness
Mairi Neil

We’ve just had Election Day when all through Australia
we turned out to vote to prove Democracy no failure.
Votes already cast knowing shocking deals done – later
some candidates forced to resign, one by horrible one.
But the men who removed Malcolm Turnbull as PM
not reduced in number – so don’t underestimate them.
Visions of Dutton as a leader still dance in some heads…
the folk on Manus and Nauru still toss in their beds.
The ‘silent majority’ with privileged excess in their bellies
believed Murdoch’s media and the crap on their tellies!

Despite what we heard – there was a rumble abroad –
not everyone realised that Morrison’s a fraud.
Plenty tapping at keyboards and scratching of pens
letters and online posts numbered multiples of ten
Passion and persuasion for society to include all
true social justice and ‘action on climate’ their call.
Lament environmental disasters, habitat losses
a wage system and laws overwhelmingly for bosses.

Seeds grow flowers and trees bear far-reaching fruit
school strikers and protesters cocked more than a snoot
at politicians and rich cronies who legislate inequality
the climate change deniers, those fearing collective solidarity.
Raised voices had courage, progressives give each other heart
so we must continue the fight until Morrison & Co depart.
Trickle down economics a failure, we must change the rules
implement a fairer tax system to fund hospitals and schools.

Labor’s policies seemed commonsense, natural and right
but when results were tallied on that fatal Election night…
How could this be? Morrison’s win dubbed ‘a miracle’
yet so little policy evidence to prove it empirical.
The nation is deeply divided although the LNP returned
with Labor’s bold reforming plan effectively spurned.
The outcome explored by journos and political pundits
while almost 50% of the population in bewilderment sit!

I weep for the planet, the suffering, and marginalised
I thought social justice and fairness an achievable prize!
Voters had one job to do and decisively blew it
but climate emergency means there’s no time to sit!
Progressives may reel from this election result
it seems to defy logic with the winners an insult
but the struggle must continue – no time for a pause
in tackling climate catastrophes and industrial laws.

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‘It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.’

J.K. Rowling

Banksy gives great advice

Ill-informed Jingoism or Quality Journalism? Be Aware and On Guard.

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The Federal Election has at last been called and now begins 5 weeks of intensive coverage of the event by the media – some people have election fatigue already, including me – because we seem to have been in ‘election mode’ ever since Malcolm Turnbull was deposed midway through last year.

Certainly, many people have wanted an election and we’ve been subjected to the current PM’s style, where his announcements regardless of the subject have always included an attack on the Opposition leader, Bill Shorten MP.

Slogans or Substance?

It is no secret, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was in advertising before he entered parliament. He helped produce the three-word slogan ‘Stop the Boats’ and other soundbites that helped the Coalition win 2013 and 2016.

Therefore, as the respected journalist, author, and TV presenter, Geraldine Doogue observed the other night on the ABC’s The Drum, Australian voters, must take responsibility to seek out, scrutinise and digest the news and facts and make the most informed choice we can.

Will people do this?

There is compulsory voting in Australia but also fake news, misinformation, and selective reporting, if not downright peddling of misinformation.

It is imperative voters actively engage with the process.

Facebook-Clickbait-Smaller.jpgThe Social Media Factor

This is the social media age, the 24hour news cycle, headlines written for clicks regardless of facts, and a time where clever use of digital tools make the production of fake news and post-truth an hourly, never mind daily occurrence.

We have all been subjected to:

  • online scams,
  • robocalls,
  • mass text messaging and
  • blatant lying.

Scepticism and cynicism abound…

We’ll need more than luck to wade through the media blitz of the next few weeks.

I’m A Friend Of The ABC

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The motion passed at a public rally supporting the ABC July 2018 and endorsed by the ALP!

I prefer the ABC and SBS, The Guardian, The Conversation and reading journalists with a track record I trust.

I completely avoid the Murdoch press, most of News Limited and despise ‘shock jocks’ because they make a mockery of reporting and journalism.

A discussion with a friend revealed shared nostalgia for some of the voices of the past like Andrew Olle and the days when a well-funded ABC investigated topics thoroughly and produced groundbreaking and effective exposes regularly and not just occasionally.

I imagine it was these voices on radio and television and in the newspapers that influenced me to write and at one stage want to be a journalist as the following illustrates.

Trying to ‘do a Kondo’ and clear clutter, I discovered a folder with some writing from days at Croydon High School in the 1960s.

In Form Three or Four, I was fortunate to have Mrs Walker for English.  She was young, a recent immigrant from England where she had worked as a journalist, and she encouraged my love of writing.

I have a strong image of her chewing gum in class and apologising, ‘I’m trying to give up smoking, so please forgive me.”

My Fourteen-Year-Old Self

What is, as far as YOU are concerned, the ideal job?

I would like an interesting job where I could meet people, see places and do something different. I would like to spend my life as a journalist because I feel this fits the specifications.

With a wide scope of various fields, I think this job would be interesting.  I would be able to meet people and also be able to travel. I enjoy writing and I feel this job could never be boring.

The job is reasonably well-paid and I would like to eventually become a freelance journalist, be my own boss and write for my own pleasure as well as other people’s.

To choose where to work and live, to travel and write about my experiences would be my ideal job.

First Day of First Job

My first job was as an assistant in a Jeweller’s shop on Saturday morning. I stepped over the threshold of the doorway with a feeling of apprehension about the four hours ahead of me.

It was a cold morning and I blamed the chill in the air as the cause of my shaking but to look back honestly, I was just plain scared. The owners of the shop were friends of the family and I was worried, not only in case I did not live up to their expectations but also in case I would do anything wrong.

My first task was to dust the shelves, as well as to keep an eye on the other assistants and pick up a few hints on how to serve. The shelves were clustered with valuable glasses and ornaments and I could barely trust my shaking hands to lift up the fragile ornaments.

Talking to customers came easily but trying to sell items and handling large amounts of money made me nervous too.

Later On

I came cheerily to work, set about my tasks in preparations for the flow of customers. Daringly, clattered around as I dusted, talked merrily to customers offering suggestions for gifts as I now had experience. Nervousness disappeared. Became self-assured.

Explanation & Reflection

I remember, Mrs Walker, putting to rest my romanticism about choosing journalism as a career,

‘You’ll, have to do what the editor wants – and that may be covering the local Cat Show – even if you’re allergic to cats!’

The first job I wrote about was with Finchley Jewellers’ – a shop owned by the parents of ex-Human Rights Commissioner, Gillian Triggs who was studying at Melbourne University in the 60s.

Our age difference and study schedule meant I didn’t see much of Gillian or her sister Carol and our paths haven’t crossed since childhood.

However, my interest in writing and reading quality journalism has never faltered and I was disappointed that this year, ill-health made me miss the A.N. Smith lecture in journalism, held annually at Melbourne University.

Arthur Norman Smith was a founder of the Australian Journalists’ Association, served as its first general president and for five years as its general secretary. Thanks to a generous bequest from the Smith family, the prestigious A.N. Smith Lecture in Journalism is presented each year by a leading authority on some aspect of journalism.

There are always memorable speakers and I wrote a blog post after the 2018 lecture by Walter Robinson, Editor-at-Large of the Boston Globe and leader of the Spotlight Team’s investigations into abuse in the Catholic Church last year.

Today, I decided to post highlights from Sarah Ferguson’s 2015 lecture because I think they are most relevant as we go into this election campaign. You can watch it yourself on youtube.

Sarah is a Walkley Award-winning journalist and her documentary series on the Rudd/Gillard years The Killing Season broadcast in 2015.

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  • The Killing Season on TV had 1 ½ million viewers and another ½ million watched it on iView.
  • It was the highest rating show in its time slot since 2005 and beat commercial stations.
  • It also was watched by the 18-24 demographic like other ABC shows.

Why?

Sarah answered that question by saying it was high drama with themes of retribution delivered with feistiness. It discussed an unresolved dispute between Gillard and Rudd that confused many Australians. Why did Gillard depose Rudd in 2010?

They were both good TV performers and the ABC technical staff highly professional.

I wonder if there will be funding available to do a similar expose of the leadership debacles in the Liberal Party?

Not according to this Staff Notice last year and considering the budget cuts inflicted on the organisation this year!

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But what the public broadcaster and other news outlets deliver is not just about the ABC being starved of funds or even who owns the media and Sarah’s 2015 lecture was prescient.

Can we really handle the truth?

When The Killing Season aired on ABC TV, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott lifted his arms to the press gallery and declared “Thank you to the ABC”.

  • It was the ABC’s 4th landmark TV series on political leadership but will there be another?
  • Will our current and future leaders feel the same obligation of history?
  • Or will future leaders no longer trust their legacy to a media they don’t control?

While governments and major institutions found new ways to limit transparency – the media industry traded away its freedom to investigate for short term access.

Sarah asserted that there is a war on transparency underway and the media is colluding with the wrong side.

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Award-winning journalist and foreign correspondent, Peter Greste supporting the ABC

Freedom from Information- Australia’s War on Transparency

Sarah had recently returned from England where she had been living and working as a reporter, and researching and writing a book.

To lighten the mood before launching into her speech, Sarah commented on the dual citizenship saga embroiling Australian politics and said if she was deported she’d prefer to go to Essex, England her mother’s birthplace rather than her own, which was Lagos Nigeria.

She then talked about UK politics and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. The UK political scene was going through convulsions and it was having an interesting effect on the media in Britain and Australia.

Sarah attended the British Labour Party Conference – the first for Corbyn as party leader. He is from the ‘hard left’ – a throwback chosen because he was not a retail politician and as far removed from Tony Blair while still being in the same party.

The press described him as a ‘defrosted member of the Politburo.’ This view of Corbyn still colours the view many sections of the media portray of Corbyn.

The British public threw the spin of Blairism and the clones it produced out, and Corbyn promised straight talking, yet at the conference, Sarah observed, they still went for slogans. Albeit they were four words and not three, like Australia’s politicians.

Sarah elicited a laugh from the audience when she said one Tony Abbott slogan that never made it up on a billboard was his ‘Nope Nope Nope.’

(Except social media enjoyed memes of ‘dope, dope, dope’!)

Sarah considers politics better viewed through satire and how true is that of Australian politics!

After the British Labour Party conference, a satirist quickly commented. What is the only red thing Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t like?

The answer was the autocue.

Corbyn had delivered a wooden speech, obviously reading the autocue and when it said “Strong message Here” in bold and underlined – he actually read those words aloud with emphasis!

Below is the teleprompt in the ABC newsroom studio, Melbourne.

We have comedians like Shaun Micallef, Charlie Pickering, Tom Gleeson and Sammy Jay scrutinising policies and their effects on ordinary Australians better than many journalists.

They cut through the interminable spin and bullshit politicians serve up at the behest of their media advisors.

Sarah started with that story about Labour in the UK to lead into the question, what does this mean for Labor in Australia and Bill Shorten because the warp and weft of the political wings of the British and Australian labour movement share common threads.

New Labour of Blair is dead and buried yet this was inspirational to Kevin Rudd and his rise to power. In 2016, Shorten contested his first election as party leader and although coming close, he didn’t win.

Ferguson’s Observations in 2015 Still Relevant Today

Corbyn and his supporters are extremely distrustful of the mainstream media who disparage him at every turn. MSM makes fun of his clothes, his mode of transport – referring to his ‘Chairman Mao-style bicycle.’

But Corbyn is as equally distrustful of the BBC.

However, what Sarah observed was that Corbyn’s antagonism to the BBC was nothing compared to the then Tory PM David Cameron’s determination to go after the BBC’s blood, even although he is considered a small ‘l’ liberal.

This antagonism and disrespect of a public broadcaster’s role is the lesson Sarah wanted us to take from her story about British politics in view of the topic. “Freedom from Information- Australia’s War on Transparency”.

She reiterated the irony of Tony Abbott praising the ABC after The Killing Season was aired yet he’d assaulted the ABC’s independence and integrity over Q & A.

When it suited his politics he commended the ABC because The Killing Season exposed the machinations in the ALP for the leadership.

Would he say the same today after some of the documentaries and investigations have exposed his party’s shenanigans and failures?

Regardless of political viewpoint, the ABC should tell the stories important for Australians.

Sarah wants to tell compelling stories about and for Australians. She wants her political reporting to be incisive and would like to be a voice for the marginalised and those often forgotten.

Journalists should be able to ask questions of government and politicians just as there is an assumption you are allowed to ask questions of corporations.

But this ability/belief is under threat.

Will future readers accept the ABC has the right to tell their story without controls?

We have seen changes to media ownership laws and laws regarding security. 

And recently laws covering social media content have been rushed through parliament and supported by both major parties.

These changes have caused disquiet in parts of the community and there is a concern it could prevent any anti-government content being aired regardless of what politicians are in power.

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More and more politicians and businesses are managing the media.

When Abbott was in Iraq he had his own media unit that fed stories to mainstream media.

Mike Rand, Australia’s most popular Premier lured an advertising executive to control his media statements.

Rand posted his own media and press releases on social media. This information picked up and repeated as if he’d been interviewed!

Lazy journalists continue to cut and paste and copy information without checking its veracity.

Already we have the respective party leaders addressing the public in videos. They carefully select the background and message and without any pesky journalists asking awkward questions can lecture/smooth talk/spruik whatever they want.

Will people check the truth of what they say or remain rusted on or anti the person depending on their politics. Will they be judged on content or looks?

Digitisation

In 2015, there was a discussion about the new digital tools for future reporting. Some of these tools came from the Gaming world – they are virtual reality tools.

Sarah asked, do you want a reporter going into a war zone and/or refugee camp behaving as if it is all amazing or should it be with an attitude of curiosity and asking hard, relevant questions?

Interestingly, when Mark Zuckerberg of FaceBook fame decided to feed news direct, he chose respected organisations like the BBC, The Guardian, New York Times etc.

There must be original compelling stories told in a way audiences can trust. This involves meticulous preparing and patient listening.

Interviewers must ask intelligent questions, imagine and frame questions that help us understand the humanity of subjects.

Key To A Good Interview

  • Preparation
  • Unflinching rigour
  • Credibility

The latter two qualities must always be retained.

Sarah left the audience with two of her heroes:

 

Vasily Grossman

A fearless Russian writer and journalist who gave us a great example of honest eyewitness reporting. He made detailed notes as he was travelling with the Red Army in WW2, writing about the Nazi extermination camp Treblinka and even of the rape of German women by the victorious Russian army. 

His book about Stalin’s antisemitism and his disillusion with the regime was censored, ‘The KGB raided Grossman’s flat after he had completed Life and Fate, seizing manuscripts, notes and even the ribbon from the typewriter on which the text had been written.’ It had to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union after Grossman’s death.

Nellie Bly

A writer who admitted herself to a mental institution so she could write with authenticity. An American journalist she was widely known for her record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days, in emulation of Jules Verne’s fictional character Phileas Fogg.

A pioneer in her field, she is credited with launching a new kind of investigative journalism. She was also a novelist, industrialist, inventor, and charity worker.

I’ll add one of my heroes:

Andrew Olle (1947-1995)

Andrew Olle was one of Australia’s most admired broadcasters. He was respected by colleagues, opponents and the public for his fairness, quiet scepticism, calmness, gentle humour and lack of hubris. Starting out as a radio news cadet in Brisbane, Olle presented most of the ABC’s flagship current affairs programs including Four CornersThe 7.30 Report, Nationwide and A Big Country.

He also hosted election night coverage and the 2BL morning radio program in Sydney. His sudden death from a brain tumour at 47 caused an outpouring of public grief, including thousands of phone calls to the ABC, thousands more signing a condolence book and 6000 cards sent to the Olle family.

As a consummate radio and television presenter and interviewer he wanted light – a light shone on what the interviewee knew better than he. His ego was big enough to not care whether he “won” or not, he wanted his listeners and viewers to know more about the person and the subject they had just experienced. It was a unique softly, softly approach that won him so many hearts.

…Annette, his wife, recalls Olle saying he was “cursed with seeing both sides of any argument”. Again, of course, it was about getting balance and fairness exactly right as well. He was the last person to rush to judgement.

Peter Manning

Here is a link to the annual Andrew Olle Media Lecture given by John Doyle in 2005. It is well worth reading because again, it is an intelligent person sharing his observations and perceptions and being prescient about not only an industry but a world important to us all.

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Road To Perdition Paved With Darkness Yet Riveting Viewing

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Maybe it is all the grim news that seems to pervade every news bulletin and many social media posts, combined with having time to clear shelves and files on the computer now I’m semi-retired, but virtual and digital worlds coincided yesterday.

I took a rest from deleting files when I discovered the first film review I ever wrote and searched to see if I still had the DVD. The review was an assignment for one of the units in my master’s degree, 2010, and the DVD was a bargain basement JB HiFi sale item – Road To Perdition.

Up until I studied for the Masters In Writing, my writing centred mainly on short stories and poetry – fiction writing. I also wrote reports for the Union of Australian Women and dabbled in life writing/memoir but never thought about being a reviewer of books, let alone film, which is not a genre I’d ever claim expertise in critiquing.

However, with one daughter having a Bachelor of Film & Television and the other a Bachelor of Fine Arts majoring in Media Arts, and both loving film, I have been ‘turned on’ to the medium and love its ability to bring stories to life.

I happily absorb all the knowledge shared with me and one of my favourite pastimes is to go to the movies with one or both of the girls and then enjoy a great discussion afterwards.

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Reviewing Has Its Pitfalls

Writing my first review, particularly as an academic assignment was challenging but also interesting because there are many varied opinions about one film – like reading novels – you discover taste is extremely subjective!

There are of course necessary components and expectations of what makes a ‘good’ film just like the techniques required to craft a ‘good’ novel. 

I wrote for a general online audience because as a complete novice, no way could I emulate Margaret and David of television fame, or Jim Schembri, The Age’s regular reviewer in The Green Guide. (Definitely, showing my age here!)

I followed the lecture guidelines and tried to cover all aspects of the craft and techniques of film-making, including sound and cinematography, as well as the narrative and acting.

The title of the film was intriguing and I searched the dictionary for the exact meaning of Perdition:

First meaning –         (a)  archaic : utter destruction.

                                    (b)  obsolete : loss.

Second meaning –    (a ) : eternal damnation.

                                     (b ) : hell.

In Christian theology, it is a state of eternal punishment and damnation into which a sinful and unrepentant person passes after death.

The definition of going down the road/path to perdition is taken to mean travelling towards something very dangerous or harmful.

For example: ‘It’s this kind of selfishness that leads down the road/path to perdition.’

It is an old-fashioned word rarely used nowadays but as mentioned in my opening sentence, it’s a word that suits recent times – and certainly suited this film!

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Film Review: Road To Perdition

Perdition in some religions is the state of everlasting punishment in hell that sinners endure after death, or can mean hell as a location. Director Sam Mendes in his 2002 Road to Perdition, has a neat metaphor – not only are the main characters Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) and his son Michael Jr (Tyler Hoechlin) driving to a town called Perdition but they are also on the way to damnation, unless as in all classical tragedies, they find redemption.

The film’s Oedipal theme explores several aspects of father and son relationships and Tom Hanks is magnificent as the main character, Michael Sullivan. (This is high praise from me because I’m not enamoured with Hanks as an actor.  I will compliment his acting in this movie. It was so good, you can’t recognise him as Tom Hanks!)

The story is about Mike Sullivan being transformed by tragedy to forge a new relationship with his son and to do this he has to destroy the relationship with John Rooney (Paul Newman), the only father he has known.

It is 1931 America, Prohibition is giving Chicago based Al Capone wealth and power and Michael Sullivan, Sr is an enforcer for John Rooney, an organised crime boss in an Illinois town populated by fellow Irish Americans. (Makes a change from the Italian mafia.)

Sullivan, an orphan raised by Rooney, is treated as a favoured son. The resentment felt by Rooney’s real son, Connor (a suitably brutal Daniel Craig), at this relationship, and his vicious murder of a disgruntled employee witnessed by Michael Jr triggers the unravelling of Sullivan Senior’s ordered life.

In his attempt to silence Michael Jr, Connor kills a younger son Peter (Liam Aiken) by mistake and Mike’s wife, Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Sullivan has to salvage what is left of his family; build a relationship with a son he barely knows, and stop him following his path of being on the wrong side of the law.

Road to Perdition, written by David Self, is based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, but is not just a pulp gangster movie, although the influence of The Godfather and The Untouchables is evident. (The latter movie with Kevin Costner as Elliot Ness is one of my favourites!)

An Irish wake establishes the culture of Rooney’s community whereas in The Godfather, it is a wedding, and Mike Sullivan’s perfectly executed campaign against Capone reminds us of Elliot Ness in The Untouchables.

However, the usual Hollywood clichés associated with gangsters are missing – there are no spats, loud suits, and hats strategically placed over eyes or laconic bad guys chewing gum, incessantly smoking, flipping coins, or firing wisecracks.

These are businessmen, ensuring illegal enterprises remain profitable; their world is not glamorous. The film shows the impact of the violence on the person who commits it, or witnesses it. Although there is a lot of killing, much of it happens off-screen.

It is a film of lost innocence because the 12-year-old narrator, Michael Jr not only witnesses a brutal slaying but is suddenly confronted with the truth that his father is a cold-blooded killer and his cuddly ‘grandfather’ Rooney is a manipulative crime boss.

Dialogue is sparse. Based on a graphic novel the film is told in scenes that are sometimes silent — superb showing not telling. Tom Hanks is brilliant as the inarticulate cold hit man struggling with personal grief, not apologising for the life he has led, determined on vengeance while saving his only son.

Stillness and stunning imagery are used to build the powerful emotions of Rooney and Sullivan coming to terms with the changed circumstances precipitated by sociopath Connor’s actions.

There are few speeches of explanation, rather dialogue such as John Rooney’s statement to Mike that, ‘It’s a natural law that sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers.’

And later in a pivotal showdown, ‘There are only murderers in this room, Michael. Open your eyes. This is the life we chose. The life we lead. And there is only one guarantee–none of us will see heaven.

Director Mendes says the film is ‘about the legacy that fathers leave sons and the secret worlds parents inhabit that the child never really knows.

Camera angles are deliberately chosen to see events from Michael Jr’s viewpoint. The New York Times described it as ‘a truly majestic visual tone poem‘ and it is true that cinematographer, Conrad L. Hall creates a world where light struggles to penetrate the darkness, sinister shadows bedevil the night, and long corridors intimidate, fearful faces are half-seen, and a ballet of looks and eye contact produce tension to keep the audience engaged.

The opening scenes of winter snow and ghost-like crowds change in a seasonal shift towards spring, new life and light, but the characters must first survive the visceral chill of downpours and more than one hail of bullets.

Rain runs off the brims of fedoras, soaks thick overcoats, bounces on streets and windscreens. Weather as uncontrollable as the violence set in motion by Connor.

Darkness stresses the atmosphere of destruction, and there is no character darker than Harlan Maguire (Jude Law) a strange, sinister, sadistic hired assassin who hunts the Sullivans at the behest of Capone’s organisation.

In one confrontation, Maguire is scarred and the mercenary job becomes personal. His pursuit of the Sullivans provides an explosive climax and an opportunity for amazing cinematography.

There are many captivating moments that are emotionally-engaging, particularly between father and son, and I guarantee you won’t see the surprise ending coming!

However, true to the era and the story’s comic book origins women are mainly background ‘broads’. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s appearance is brief. She cooks meals, is silently supportive, and is murdered.

Made in 2002, the other female roles of an aunt, waitress, a prostitute, and an old childless woman are even briefer but not sure I’d warm to any female character playing a prominent role in such a violent world.

Despite the macho emphasis, Road to Perdition is impressive and entertaining. The careful attention to detail (especially historical aspects of costumes, dialogue and attitude), the quality of the acting (Hanks, Newman, Law and Craig deliver excellent performances), and the haunting musical score by Thomas Newman crafts a fine tale into a memorable film.

Added Extras

Perdition, Michigan refers to a made-up town but the film is set along the shore of Lake Michigan and the graphic novel was based on a true story of Bill Gabel and the Looney mob hell-raising in the Midwest during the Great Depression.

News of the World gave it five stars, ‘The greatest gangster film since The Godfather.’

For writers and storytellers (and students of Masters in Writing!), it is the special features on DVDs that add to the enjoyment of the movie. This DVD is no exception with:

  • Audio commentary by Director Sam Mendes
  • 11 Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary
  • HBO Special: The Making of Road To Perdition
  • CD Soundtrack Promo
  • Photo Gallery (50 stills)
  • Cast and Filmmaker Bios
  • Production Notes

Finally, a quote from the blurb,

‘Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, 1999) brings his haunting vision to a hard-edged story of lost innocence, conflicted loyalty and ambition.’

I still find writing reviews – whether of film or book – challenging but as a creative writer, it is a good exercise.

The deconstructing and examining of the narrative, layers and impact, the characters and details can only help my own understanding of craft and technique of different genres and even stimulate ideas.

quote-i-just-want-to-touch-something-deep-in-the-heart-of-humanity-i-don-t-know-if-that-s-nicole-ari-parker-144-67-30

Is Love All We Need?

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#TravelEverywhereWithLove and Dogman

At the beginning of the week, I had to go into the city and because it has been a while, I took the opportunity to stroll through some of the streets and arcades I don’t normally visit and chanced upon a sculpture that looked vaguely familiar yet I hadn’t seen it before.

travel everywhere with love stand.jpg

 

Travel with Love is a global public art project that’s re-uniting the world. In the face of closing borders, it stands for keeping minds open and love flowing.

Gillie and Marc are creating interactive bronze sculptures featuring their iconic characters for leading cities across the world. When people see the familiar and beloved Rabbitwoman and Dogman in a city, they’ll know that they’re welcome there.

When I read the blurb, I remembered where I’d seen similar public art – in December 2017, walking along the St Kilda foreshore with visitors from England after showing them the little fairy penguins.

 As unlikely animal kingdom companions, the Rabbit and the Dog represent diversity and togetherness. Without a definitive race, religion, or culture, they symbolize all people as one.

A Case of Love At First Sight?

The artists, Gillie and Marc met on a film shoot in Hong Kong. Apparently, their differences should have been incompatibilities, but ‘their hearts said something else’. Seven days later they were married on the foothills of Mt Everest and are best friends and soulmates,  collaborating for over 25 years as artists.

They appear to be living proof that indeed ‘love is all you need’ and they are spreading that love by ensuring their art makes a powerful statement as a motivating force for compassion and conversation.

Sydney-based they have created these iconic hybrid characters, which are definitely eye-catching and I believe they do what all good public art should do – they start discussions.

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Dogman as paparazzi?

Two of the sculptures in St Kilda paid homage to well-known women:

  • Inspired by Angelina Jolie’s humanitarian efforts with conservation, education and women’s rights. Angelina RabbitgirlStronger than ever – stands tall and strong showing she’ll never give up.
  • Marilyn Monroe may be the world’s most recognisable sex symbol, but behind her twinkling eyes and dazzling smile was a fragile and fearful rabbit-like woman struggling to cope with her own fame. She was also one of the first celebrities to be honoured by the paparazzi. Happy Birthday Mr President highlights society’s obsession with celebrities in a fun and accessible way.

( Marilyn Rabbitgirl strikes that famous pose I wrote about when Bendigo Art Gallery hosted a giant Marilyn statue and exhibition a couple of years ago)

The third sculpture is of coffee mates a beloved motif in Gillie and Marc’s art. These coffee drinker friends warmly remind viewers of their first-morning coffee. Early Morning Coffee shows Dogman and Rabbitwoman peacefully enjoying a morning coffee.

It was loaned to three separate locations in Melbourne: Melbourne Emporium, 500 Bourke Street and St Kilda Pier.

St Kilda Pier bought the sculpture after their three-month loan period because the sculpture was so successful in bringing together the local community.

I don’t know whether Travel With Love will remain on St Collins but considering the current debate engulfing our parliament in recent days concerning refugee policy, I really hope so, because unlike our Federal Government’s attitude this sculpture encourages unity rather than enmity.

In response to the worldwide plight of refugees and immigrants, and changing border control policies, Travel with Love has been created as a stand for global unity. Connected by the public art project, each visitor (traveller and resident alike) will feel like next door neighbours.

…Rabbitwoman and Dogman tell the autobiographical tale of two opposites coming together to become best friends and soulmates. The Rabbit and the Dog, as unlikely animal-kingdom companions, represent diversity and acceptance through love.

Rabbitwoman and Dogman have a dream that all creatures, regardless of race, religion, or orientation can feel accepted and never be judged.

Dogman holds a magnificent red apple. In Chinese, the word for apple is ping. Ping also happens to be the word for peace –  a critical facet to the sculpture’s design.

2018, the Year of the Dog was going to be a year of good fortune, and the artwork aimed to engage existing community residents, while also attracting new visitors to this vibrant hub of multi-culturalism in Melbourne.

In Chinese tradition, when a dog enters a home it symbolizes the coming of good fortune. Dogs are loyal, clever and brave. Best friends to humans, they are known for having harmonious relationships with people from all walks of life and don’t discriminate against socio-economic status, race, religion, or orientation.

 “In the face of last year’s unstable global landscape, an apple signifying peace holds particular importance by spreading the message of diversity and acceptance for all beings… Gillie and I feel deeply connected to this representation, as all of our art is built upon the foundation of love and togetherness.

We combined the powerful image of Dogman with an apple in the hopes of inspiring the public to be brave in the pursuit of a better world. ”

Gillie and Marc

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Writers & Love

Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.

Iris Murdoch 1919-99: ‘The Sublime and the Good‘ in  Chicago Review 13 (1959) 

Most people experience love, without noticing that there is anything remarkable about it.

Boris Pasternak 1890-1960: Doctor Zhivago (1958)

Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.

Ursula K. Le Guin 1929 – 2018: The Lathe of Heaven (1971)

You know very well that love is, above all, the gift of oneself!

Jean Anouilh 1910-1987: Ardèle (1949)

Romantic love is one of the great and popular themes for art, especially literature and screen and in our society, we even set aside a special day to remind us of the fact!

Love The Day
Mairi Neil

Valentine’s Day, a day for lovers
Mr or Mrs Hallmark tell me so.
A day for lovers under covers
Valentine’s Day? A day for lovers!
A day when you forsake all others
A day that costs a lot of dough
Valentine’s Day, a day for lovers
Mr or Mrs Hallmark tell me so!

Remembering Mum
Mairi Neil

I can see you sitting reading a book
Twisting your hair, deep in concentration
I know you’d rather read than cook
I can see you sitting reading a book
Into another world with such a contented look
Did Dad envy the Mills and Boon destination?
I can see you sitting reading a book
Twisting your hair, deep in concentration

But there is also love of country, place, objects, family, food, music, hobbies, sport, film, books, politics, pets … the list extensive… all can add profound meaning to life, be the inspiration for getting up in the morning, the reason for decision-making, and for daily satisfaction.

LOVE

  • a word, a feeling, a concept, a theme… love can be small, specific, detailed, contained within a personal circle or there can be the bigger picture – a love for humanity.

However, you experience love, I hope it involves tenderness and caring, perhaps duty and responsibility, resilience and loyalty, commitment, maybe even fun if it is something rather than someone.

No matter the interpretation or experience, I agree with Gillie and Marc that life is better with love, and kindness, especially when it comes to treating neighbours, immigrants, refugees and others marginalised.

We are lucky to have talented artists who can confront us with ideas, and councils, philanthropists, and communities prepared to invest in public art – whether it be sculpture, murals or other installations.

When I was in Irkutsk, Russia there was a whole park full of installations, many the embodiment of well-known rhymes and fairytales or figures from mythology.

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I loved this one based on the three wise monkeys: hear no evil, see, evil, speak no evil. A cultural icon originally from the east (Japan) and well-known in the west.

I remember a small brass ornament that always sat on the mantlepiece during my childhood and I know many people in my age group (aged pensioners unite!) will remember something similar.

I wrote a prose poem years ago in class when I gave the students an exercise based on ‘an object of significance’ from their childhood.

Three Wise Monkeys
Mairi Neil

Mizaru, Kikazaru and Iwazaru sit on the mantlepiece:
seeing no evil, hearing no evil, and speaking no evil.
A Japanese pictorial maxim transplanted to Scotland.
Brought home by a great uncle, a ship’s captain,
these wise monkeys an added admonishment
to a childhood steeped in Presbyterian rules.
Yet, the shadow of evil an unseen cloak –
we live in the tatters of World War Two.
Crowded cemeteries, buildings awaiting demolition,
food rationing… crippling austerity,
shattered families struggle to find meaning,
shudder if ambulance and police sirens wail.
Speak no evil an achievable rule perhaps
but hearing no evil more difficult
and what of seeing evil or evil seen?
The brass monkeys a cold and chilly weight
in my child’s hand… etching a mystic message
of rules, to chant in the playground.

In Yekaterinburg, Siberia there was a delightful animal orchestra near the arts precinct. They brought a smile to my face and like the fairytale park in Irkutsk presented a different image of a country often represented in the media by military statues and huge murals of revolutionary figures.

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I also loved this one of folk musicians in a park renowned for festivals and open-air concerts. having lived through the 70s and adoring Dylan and Donovan as well as Baez and Mitchell, this couple melted any language barriers.

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But perhaps my favourite piece of public art when I travelled was Wincher’s Stance by John Clinch (an apt name). It was named by Susan Ritchie and commissioned by Strathclyde Passenger Transport Executive. Of course, it’s in Glasgow.

(In Scotland, winch is to kiss and cuddle. It also means to go out regularly with someone.)

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The emotion this couple radiates is recognisable to anyone who arrives or departs from those they love – it can be the joy of reunion, or ensuring a lasting impression.

It can be easy to walk past public art or grow accustomed to it or take it for granted so I’m glad I came across Dogman and reading the artist’s statement helped me reflect on its message.

Love may not be ‘all we need’ but caring for each other and recognising similarities rather than differences is a good start.  A big thank you to the many public art installations that encourage reflection and conversation!

 

Do Border Controls and Building Barriers Quarantine Our Humanity?

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Backpacker Statue, Irkutsk Russia

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

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

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

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

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Panoramic view of Irkutsk Railway Station

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’ve received my passport…’

‘Wonderful,’

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

‘What do you mean?’

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

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

‘Helga, instead of Heidi? ‘

“Yep.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messages Between MJ and me, April 2017

Missed video call at 3.58pm 

Only one bar of Wifi

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry it was an issue but glad you okay. Xoxox

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

Missed video call 5.55pm

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

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

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

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

Facebook Post April 4, 2017

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

 

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

Building barriers not new.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facebook Post April 5, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Messages Between MJ and me, April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will do. Xx

Is a Peaceful World Without Borders A Fantasy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let’s build bridges not walls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snatches from old movies and books rattle in my head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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