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

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

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NAIDOC Week 2018 

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

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

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

Two Sisters – Ngarta And Jukuna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pat Lowe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prologue, two Sisters

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

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

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

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

page 31

Jilji-a sandhill
Jilji – a sandhill

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

page 34

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pat Lowe, contributing author in the introduction to Two Sisters

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

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

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

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

No such contact for the sisters.

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

Bridging The Cultural Divide

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

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

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

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

newspaper article

Epilogue – What About Justice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BECAUSE OF HER , WE CAN!

 

When A Trip is Unforseen, Unplanned and Unappealing…

 

park bench Edinburgh 2017

On Tuesday morning, in a buoyant mood, I set off for work – my last class for the term – and mind already turning over a list of appointments, events, ideas for lessons, and a list of catch-up household chores to be squeezed into the winter break.

In a folder ready for photocopying and collating, the prepared anthology of the writing students of Godfrey Street’s Writing Creatively Class.

I had burned the metaphorical midnight oil for several nights but tiredness banished when I organised the wonderful work produced this semester.  The cliched spring in my step real because a task satisfactorily completed – a job well done.

Pride Comes Before A Fall

However,  life has a way of reminding me never to be too comfortable or smug!

I’d only strode a few yards from home when I was flying through the air before landing with a thud on the concrete path.

Wings definitely clipped!

Three days later, beautiful bruises reveal themselves in places well-hidden but still painful, I  reflect on how lucky I am (no broken bones just sore muscles) and I now obey (within reason) both my daughters’ exhortations, ‘Can you just sit and do nothing – pleeease!’

I’m trying to ‘go with the flow!

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Windsurfer, Mentone January 2018

Déjà vu or Ground Hog Day?

While sitting in Frankston Hospital’s Accident & Emergency, Facebook reminded me of my travels last year and yes, unbelievably, it was this time last year when I was limping through the last leg of the big overseas adventure because I’d tripped in the hallway at my cousin’s house in Renton near Glasgow.

Despite my lovely cousin’s pleas, I didn’t get checked out by a doctor and ‘walked through the pain,’ which led to all sorts of complications when I returned home.

My daughters were most insistent I didn’t repeat any stoicism.

I reluctantly agreed, despite feeling like one of the guest speakers at a Women’s Hospital function who said once she retired ‘a trip’ became ‘a fall’ and she was sent off to a Fall Clinic as if she had a chronic problem.

My accidents were both unexpected trips, but landing on concrete is more likely to do damage than a floor – and it felt decidedly more painful!

I can laugh about Tuesday now, but the audience of half-a-dozen workers were not laughing when I landed beside them. Several strong pairs of arms hoisted me to my feet when I told them I was ready to stand and prove I didn’t need an ambulance.

At another time I might have revelled being fussed over by a batch of young men but I just wanted to return the few yards home and ‘have a Bex and a good lie down!’

A young man escorted me the 100 feet and carried my bag. He returned a few minutes later to check I was okay but I told him my daughters were on their way.

The cavalry arrived to greet a crying mess sitting draped in a bath towel toga with a large icepack on both knees and double-checking fingers, wrists, elbows, neck and all the other places that hurt.

Maybe it is a sign of age but the pain was excruciating. Shock set in and I started to shake – the girls were decisive.

A cup of tea and a couple of Panadol and we headed for Frankston Hospital.

Mobile phones a godsend that day. They had tried for an appointment with our local doctor when I first rang them but the clinic was booked out. They’d also rang my manager and cancelled the class.

While Mary played nurse and found some looser pants for me to wear that wouldn’t pressure my knees, Anne marched down to the worksite introduced herself and recorded the company’s details. She got a contact name of a supervisor because I’d caught my foot on the corner of a manhole cover they’d removed but left jutting out from the area of pavement blocked off.

Distracted and curious by the activity I tripped, but maybe the whole path should have been closed.  Lessons to be learned all round!

Silver Linings

The day became surreal and emotions ran high – suffice to say various temperaments exposed and moments bordered on slapstick, television soapie, Grey’s Anatomy, Brooklyn 99 and then an unexpected lovely moment…

We arrived home from Frankston to find a huge box of fruit on the doorstep and a handwritten note from one of the workers hoping I am okay and wishing me well.

I really appreciated their kindness.

fruit bowls.jpg

I also appreciated my daughters’ devotion and decisiveness – they proved themselves capable and caring adults and in all the drama I had a moment of parental pride and joy – they will survive, perhaps thrive – without me and have obviously discussed and thought about ‘the ageing me’ with one of them declaring at one stage, ‘You are not superwoman and don’t have to be supermum anymore.’

And so for a few days, I am ‘taking it easy’ factoring in Panamax and Voltaren Emulgel with the vitamins and blood pressure tablets!

I’ve been touched by visits and phone calls from friends and I’m blessed that injuries don’t seem to be too drastic and the holidays will be great recuperation time.

Happenstance indeed!

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And Today is Poet’s Day

POETS day is a term used by workers in the United Kingdom to refer jocularly to Friday as the last day of the work week. The word “POETS” is an acronym for “Piss off early, tomorrow’s Saturday”: hence Friday becomes “Poets day“.

With ‘enforced’ leisure I’ve started going through notebooks and extracting the ideas jotted down – maybe I’ll get some creative writing done!

I came upon this poem – apt because it was Tuesday Class I was heading to when I tripped so here’s ‘the postcard’ I ‘didn’t send’.

Remember the perennial joke from primary school if you witnessed somebody tripping?

Oops, I tripped.

You didn’t send me a postcard!

An Acrostic Tuesday

Mairi Neil

Tuesdays during school term, I teach in Bentleigh

Up the line from Mordialloc towards the city

Easy to get to by public transport, especially trains

So convenient! And I love it! I know I am lucky, even on

Days when inclement weather suggests

A day in bed or seat by the fireside…

Yet, I‘d never use bad weather as an excuse. Unless

 

Catastrophic cyclone creates wailing whistling winds

Large hailstones the size of tennis balls thunder down

An unseasonal snowfall blocks doors, driveways, footpaths

Sleet, slush or slippery ice replaces stable ground –

Scenarios unimaginable in Mordialloc – unless you are a writer!

empty classroom

Happy Holidays and Happy Poet’s Day!

 

 

Corruption Unnoticed Is Corruption Unchecked – We Need Effective Journalists

journalist Walter Robinson

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

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

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

talk at mlb uni introducing Robbie

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

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

Can democracy survive without a strong aggressive press?

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

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

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

free-press-quote-from-churchill

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

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

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

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

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

The Boston Globe and Spotlight

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

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

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

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

quote about tyranny

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

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

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

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

The children didn’t matter!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

quote about leadership

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

Along, Came Trump…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quality over Quantity

Remember the four characteristics of media writing

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

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

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

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

Image result for when integrity dies within a person

Corruption Unnoticed is Corruption Unchecked

end of talk at melb uni 1

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

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

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

Robby gave an example of Brazil.

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

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

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

The Effects of Writing About Child Abuse Do Not Go away

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

Robby’s answer, ‘Not well!’ 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Takes Resources To Pay Good Investigative Journalists

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

Robby teaches journalism and has done for the last ten years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Staging Post – A Film To Reaffirm Belief in Humanity

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Yesterday afternoon as part of the City of Kingston’s Refugee Week I attended a screening of Jolyon Hoff’s film The Staging Post – a remarkable film that leaves an indelible mark on your heart. 

The moving story of the creation of a school and the building of a cohesive community shows a different aspect of the lives of refugees awaiting processing in Indonesia. 

I don’t know whether it will change hardened opinions about our government’s refugee policy but it does confront and challenge and it definitely adds to our knowledge by telling a story not widely known!

This year, Refugee Week, held from Sunday 17 June to Saturday 23 June, aims to raise awareness about the issues affecting refugees and to celebrate the positive contributions they make to Australian society. (There are over 800,000 Australians who were once refugees!)

The film screening plus a scrumptious afternoon tea was held at Shirley Burke Theatre in Parkdale, a comfortable venue for the film and the Q and A session afterwards with the director Jolyon Hoff. A stark contrast to the lives of the thousands of refugees throughout the world who can’t help but feel nobody wants them when you see the news clips and read many of the comments on social media!

A Positive Ageing representative from Kingston’s Access and Equity Committee welcomed the audience and introduced Jolyon. Joanne mentioned it was World Refugee Day and this year the theme was “With Refugees.

Words And How Stories Are Told Matter

When you hear the word refugee what images spring to mind? 

  • Rohingya in their hundreds and thousands trekking through jungle mud,
  • boat people from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka or Iraq arriving in Australia and suiciding in mandatory detention,
  • Africans floundering in the oceans off  Italy,
  • camps in Jordan with miles of tents,
  • crying women and children at the Mexican and U.S.A. border,
  • crowds of young men rioting in Germany,
  • ramshackle cities in Calais and numerous other towns … ?

Do you think the terms asylum seeker, refugee, illegal immigrants, migrants are interchangeable?

Naming is a choice, the words we use – especially the words our political representatives and media choose – are important.

The choice reflects not just perspective on how and why people have begun a journey, but who the people are and their rights. It especially says a lot about the speaker or writer’s opinion towards the people they are describing, and their knowledge or lack thereof.

By choosing to describe asylum seekers as illegal immigrants, economic migrants, or boat people it is easy for politicians to justify denying refugees basic human rights and classify them as less deserving of help.

Define A Refugee

A refugee is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country … ”

The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees

Protecting refugees is the core mandate of UNHCR.

The word refugee comes from French and was first used in the modern context following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which sent the Protestant Huguenots to flee the religious persecution by the French King Louis XIV.

There have been many pograms, persecutions, wars, land clearances, and oppression since.

For most of us, it was the horrendous displacement of people caused by WW2 that has cemented ideas and images in our mind about who or who isn’t a refugee and whether there is empathy for them as opposed to the fear, distrust and contempt that many populist leaders exploit.

The Director’s Introduction

Jolyon came to the story 4-5 years ago when living in Jakarta with his family because of his wife’s work. In 2013, the news broadcast the Australian Government’s latest ‘detention overseas’ policy by announcing anyone arriving by boat would be detained offshore in Manus or Nauru islands; they re-instated mandatory offshore detention.

  • He realised that in the 15 years of asylum seekers being in the news he had never met one.
  • He wondered who are these people and why do they want to come to Australia?
  • He decided to visit where refugees gathered, ostensibly to arrange to make deals with people smugglers and get to Christmas Island to seek asylum in Australia.
  • He drove to the outskirts of the city, went over a shaky bridge and arrived at Cisarua, a bustling village, but also the place considered a staging post for boats to Christmas Island.

The driver pointed to a man and said, ‘Over there, that’s a refugee.’

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Muzafar, Khadim, Jolyon

The meeting with ‘the refugee’ changed both their lives. Hasan introduced him to a cousin, Rizwana who said he must meet her brother, Muzafar, who was a photographer.

Jolyon asked all the ‘stupid but obvious’ questions:

  • Why did you leave your own country?
  • Was it really that bad?
  • How did you get here?
  • How do you manage to live?
  • Why do you want to live in Australia?
  • What is your plan, if you have one?…

Muzafar was an amazing photographer with beautiful photographs of Central Afghanistan who had teamed up with seventeen years old, Khadim who had made short films on his mobile phone and after posting them on the Internet had won awards.

Jolyon considered himself a good filmmaker, he’d studied in Australia but was stunned when he saw Muzafar’s photos and Khadim’s films – films oozing authenticity, raw footage from when both men decided to raise their voices and present their lives, culture, countries to the world and to keep a record of their incredible journeys.

Muzafar and Khadim are Afghan Hazara refugees who were stuck in Indonesia when Australia “stopped the boats”. They faced many years in limbo – at one stage the UNHCR said 5 years, some people had been there 10 years, and the forecast now is 15 – 25 years!!

Not only did they collaborate and complete this film with Jolyon but the majority of the film is about the creation of the Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre an amazing community school that began with a $200 donation, two rooms, one trained teacher and two teenage assistants.

It now has 18 teachers and managers teaching nearly 200 students a day – 110 students in morning classes and 57 older women and mothers ( many illiterate in their own language) in the afternoon. They are trialling Skype classes by a teacher in Australia.

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Cisarua Learning Centre

When we started we had no idea. What should we teach? How should they teach? Little by little we found our way.

Muzafar Ali

The film does not skirt over the fact that the major issues in the refugees’ lives remain. They are not allowed to work in Indonesia and rely on friends, family, supporters to donate – they receive support from locals as well as concerned people in Australia.

  • Indonesia allows refugees to stay but gives no help or pathway to citizenship
  • Refugees are not allowed to work and not allowed to attend school (since the success of Cisarua, this rule has been ignored!)

There are family members still in their home countries but also others who have been resettled in Europe, USA, Canada and Australia. Unfortunately, some have family members here but because they arrived ‘by boat’ the new, tougher laws in Australia will not allow family members to be reunited!

“Courageous People Never Give Up”

The real value lies in the process behind the outcomes – refugees building trust in one another, confidence, participation in problem solving and decision-making, and a general sense of starting each day with a purpose. After more than two decades working with refugees, this is certainly the most effective pre-departure preparation program I have encountered.

Lucy Fiske, Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research fellow, UTS, Sydney.

I hope many people see this inspirational film – an example of people who have been brutalised and forced to flee their own country in fear yet proved their resilience, courage and resourcefulness, by creating an amazing community that flourishes on hope.

The film is a must see – riveting and balanced – you laugh and you cry. This is about stateless people creating an energy, a force for the future. No longer perpetual victims or voiceless – they are telling their stories.

Adults with a variety of skills – plumbers, electricians, carpenters, artists, designers – renovating and fitting out a decrepit building into a functioning learning centre…

Two little girls learning to recite the alphabet, others reciting times tables whispering the answers to each other when one stumbles…

Afghani children dancing and singing, preparing for a concert to meet local and overseas children at an International School for the first time – the wonderment and uninhibited joy as the children mix with each other and share their knowledge… asylum seekers and refugees have something to give, a connection is made and a relationship grows in strength…

Khadim finally accepted to be resettled in the USA and as he packs his few belongings, he talks of his love for his mother and sisters, his fears for them, his determination to change a system that has women exchanged as young as 13 to marry men they do not love. He holds a traditional hat his mother made him, snuggles his face close, ‘It is so precious, it carries her smell…’ tears glisten –

I join him… and cry again when Muzafar and family arrive safely in Australia.

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After the film, there was a Q and A session and we discovered that one little girl in the film who had dreams of becoming a doctor is now at college in Texas, top of her class and writing a novel! She will achieve her dream one day!

Khadim arrived in Los Angeles, was given a $500 cheque although he didn’t have a bank account and was turfed out of the ‘resettlement’ hotel after one night and told he was on his own and to get a job.

Using the networks he established online, he is now travelling across America and Canada visiting former refugees. Part of a bigger story than Cisarua. The friendship and project that started all those years ago when Jolyon sought answers.  Understanding continues to grow and spread.

How to Help And Stand With Refugees

To support the filming and an outreach programme you can make a tax-deductible donation at the Documentary Australia Foundation – documentaryaustralia.com.au 

Muzafar fared better because Jolyon and his wife met him and his family at Adelaide airport when they were finally accepted here for resettlement. He is at Adelaide University and also travels promoting the film and the Cisarua Learning Centre, which is now a Public Benevolent Institution with DGR (deductible gift recipient) status.

Their idea is that refugees can be part of the solution. They “uncover the sleeping leaders within the refugee communities and encourage them to start their own refugee-led initiatives, and then accompany them for as long as they need.”

Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre has inspired at least 20 other refugee-led education centres and changed the lives of thousands of refugee families.

There are now over 1,500 refugees receiving education in Indonesia from approximately 100 refugee teachers.

To donate and to find out more to help and stand WITH refugees

  • email info@cisarualearning.com or
  • write to Cisarua Learning, Supporting Refugee Education, Unit 4, 484-486 Bronte Road, Bronte NSW 2024.
  • Buy the DVD,
  • read the stories,
  • stay engaged and be in there for the long haul.

Everywhere asylum seekers are being demonised. We are told stopping the boats was to prevent deaths at sea, yet where is the outrage at the prison-like conditions and deaths on Nauru and Manus – another suicide as recently as two weeks ago!

Many wealthy countries are closing their borders – the USA has halved their refugee intake, Canada has reduced their numbers too and Australia has radically reduced their intake but Minister Dutton and his BorderForce remain tight-lipped and make it increasingly difficult to discover numbers. Most media are denied access to Manus and Nauru.

We need films like The Staging Post to show us a world most of us will never experience and reveal the stories of courage, resilience, love and hope of refugee communities and maybe – just maybe Australians will rediscover the ability to warmly welcome ‘those who come across the seas‘!

The ground-breaking documentary, The Staging Post, is vital in shifting the understanding and debate in Australia to better understand the impact of our current policies.

Tim O’Connor, Director, refugee Council of Australia.

The staging Post is an incredible film and needs to be seen by as many people as possible. it shows how the refugees in Indonesia would make extraordinary citizens, in any country.

Glynis Johns

 

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

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Our Public Broadcaster Under Threat – Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Australia commercial media is mainly Murdoch media.

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

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

Barry Tucker – Truth in Media blog

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

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

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

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

David McKnight writing online for The Conversation

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

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We need An Independent Voice Reporting & Investigating The News

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

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

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

Market research firm IBISWorld noted in June 2016 that:

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

Investigative Journalism a Necessity

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

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

That all changed once Abbott was elected.

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

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

Keeping Every Bastard Honest

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

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

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

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

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

Only publicly funded news provides this much detail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Can We Do?

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

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

Dear ABC & SBS Review Panel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many thanks

Mairi Neil, Mordialloc 3195.

 

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

 

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Knowledge Is Power- Here Comes The Sun!

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On Tuesday night, Environment Victoria and the Alternative Technology Association presented a seminar called Repower Your Home – one of the most informative events I’ve attended regarding the cost and value of ‘going solar’, and how renewable energy can help reduce energy costs and make Victoria, and indeed the world, a cleaner and more sustainable place to live.

Climate Change a huge issue, and in Victoria, as we head towards a state election in November, the production and consumption of energy and its cost a hot topic.

The 150 people present at the seminar were concerned about power prices but many also wanted to participate as a community to ensure whatever sustainable energy is produced, it is distributed fast, safe, and as fair as possible.

There were representatives from companies expert in providing advice and products to make homes more energy efficient. I came home with business cards and brochures plus memories of helpful, friendly conversations!

There is a lot of confusing and conflicting advice circulating, plus charlatans and cowboys prepared to take advantage of the gullible and ill-informed – more seminars like this are needed.

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Alternative Technology Association

I have been a member of this organisation for over a decade because I wanted to support scientists, engineers and environmentalists who cared about a sustainable future – their magazine ReNew, one of the first I received digitally.

They have always been ‘looking to the future’ and their work on improving electric vehicles fascinating and persistent.

Years ago, recently widowed and facing the replacement of an old hot water system,  I decided to go solar but was misled and ripped off by a company blanket marketing at the time and purporting to be experts. The installation of a solar powered hot water system became a nightmare of shoddiness and I eventually sought and achieved redress through the government ombudsman.

My ‘baptism by fire’ led me to join the ATA, do a lot more research about who to trust in this growth industry. The company that installed my main solar panels was recommended by the ATA and were reliable, efficient, and competitively priced.

For me, trust is always the key.

The Alternative Technology Association (ATA) is a not-for-profit organisation that enables, represents and inspires people to live sustainably in their homes and communities. Established in 1980, the ATA provides expert, independent advice on sustainable solutions for the home to households, government, industry and corporate clients.

The ATA has more than 6650 members across Australia walking the talk in their own homes. We have helped thousands of households save money and reduce their environmental footprint with information on energy efficiency, solar power, rainwater tanks, materials reuse and waste.

The ATA influences government policy by drawing on our technical expertise and members’ experiences. The ATA advocates in government and industry arenas for easy access to sustainable solutions as well as continual improvement of the technology, information and products needed to change the way we live. The ATA also provides consultancy services based on our technical expertise in energy, water and communications.

The ATA publishes two market-leading sustainable living magazines, Sanctuary: modern green homes and ReNew: technology for a sustainable future. The magazines have a combined readership of over 120,000.

The ATA has 14 active branches across Australia that meet regularly, holding informative seminars and workshops, sustainable house tours and attending fairs and events. We also provide an online and phone advice service for members.

 

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Keiran from the ATA and Anne from Environment Victoria

 

Guest Speaker, Keiran Price – Energy Analyst

Keiran is an energy analyst with the ATA who has worked on numerous projects assessing the benefits of solar installations for residents, businesses and local governments. Prior to joining the ATA, Keiran lived in London for four years and worked at the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets and the UK Energy Market Regulator, where he was involved in the development and administration of a number of renewable energy and energy efficiency schemes. Before moving to London, Keiran was a political staffer in South Australia, a position which inspired his passion for policies that support renewable energy, sustainability and the environment.

What Are You using Electricity For?

Keiran advised we should all check our bills and look at the retail tariff we are paying – all of us are probably being ripped off.

Choice magazine did a survey recently and reached the conclusion that to get the best tariff, you need to change your retailer every three months! Most people will not do that!

However,  Keiran suggested we must shop around and the best place to look first is the Victorian Government’s website: Victorian Energy Compare a trustworthy site kept up-to-date.

Is There An Energy Crisis & How Do We Cope?

Keiran referred to a recent article in The Age about soaring power bills for a pub in Mordialloc.

(Of course, the owner just happened to be a member of the Liberal Party and the informant Matthew Guy, the Opposition Leader, who might have just shot himself in the foot if you read the comments on the article.)

Article about Doyles

After suggesting, the pub’s owner could and should reduce consumption, Keiran explained how this can be done in most households.

6 Ways To Reduce Consumption

Keiran listed items in the order of those that consume the most energy:

  1. Install reverse cycle air conditioners – they are the most efficient for providing heating and cooling – the biggest consumers of electricity
  2. Install an efficient hot water system – shop around for a replacement before it is needed to get the best deal. Go electric with a heat pump hot water system being the most efficient.
  3. Appliances like dishwashers and washing machines can have a timer so they are used during the day and you get maximum benefit from solar panels. Avoid having a clothes dryer.
  4. Cooking – if you must cook with gas because you feel more comfortable then consider using portable bottles rather than mains gas because then you don’t pay supply charge of hundreds of dollars a year.
  5. Check your refrigerator is efficient – star rating on appliances important. Don’t have a second fridge in the garage ‘for beer’. Keep that second fridge turned off with the door slightly open, and only put it on before your party or the weekend or whenever the beer is going to be consumed.
  6. Lighting consumes electricity too – replace inefficient incandescent and halogen bulbs with LED. Turn screens off at powerpoint when not in use – television, laptops, desktop computers, phone battery chargers. Standby mode still uses power! Phone and tablet chargers referred to as ‘vampire load’ using just a little bit of power but if on all the time it still consumes energy!

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How Do you Make your Home More Efficient?

** Minimise heating and cooling.

  1. Roof and walls need insulation – a no-brainer.
  • Keiran advised checking the insulation is still in the roof if you had workmen come for any reason, especially electricians, because they often disturb insulation to get access to wiring and then forget to return insulation to correct place.
  • Pop your head up into the roof cavity and check your insulation is where it should be.
  1. Floorboards, windows and doors – retrofitting floors can be complicated but worth sealing or covering with carpet.
  • There can be gaps and airflow and these should be minimised to stop draughts, also around windows and doors.
  • Windows can be shaded – external in summer because on a hot day one square metre of warmed glass is the equivalent to running a bar heater!
  • There are numerous ways of stopping direct sunlight onto glass in summer: plants, trees, blinds, sails, shutters…
  • In winter you need good curtains to keep the heat in. No airflow over top and back out the bottom – install pelmets, they are important.
  • Honeycomb blinds are the most efficient but any blinds are better than exposed windows.
  1. Run energy efficient appliances.
  • Check the star rating – the number of stars important with up to $200 a year difference in usage.
  • Eg, Even if an appliance with high star rating costs $500 more to buy than one that uses higher energy, remember that in a little over 2 years you will have saved that difference in energy costs.

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Why Solar?

Having solar panels on your roof converts sunlight into direct current (DC), an inverter converts it into alternate current (AC) to power your home and appliances.
Any excess solar power is exported to the grid and you will be paid a feed-in tariff.

Some facts – In Australia March 2018:

  • 1.8 million homes have rooftop solar
  • That’s 20% of homes
  • Or 4.7 million Australians living under solar
  • Most get a good return for their investment
  • Very few have battery storage but numbers are rising – 12% at the moment.
  • Rooftop panels need space and access to the sun
  • The standard system size is 5kw

Steps Towards Solar

  1. Get your home assessed for suitability
  2. Speak to your energy retailer and find out about tariff charges
  3. Find a solar retailer and installer
  4. Organise installation
  5. Maintain the system

Keiran emphasised that the industry is not boom or bust anymore, the market is more mature and a lot of the cowboys in earlier days have been weeded out. (Hallelujah!)

However there are still some shockers out there so don’t be ripped off.

The Clean Energy Council has an approved solar retailer list. These are companies that have signed a code of conduct.

  • If you know people who have solar – listen to their experience because word of mouth recommendations can also be good indicators on who to avoid or employ.
  • Get multiple quotes and check warranties There are 50 good solar companies in Victoria but get at least three quotes.

If installed properly, solar panels need little maintenance, usually, the rain cleans any dust or grime. Don’t be ripped off by ‘professional maintenance’ companies – this appears to be the latest marketing/moneymaking ploy.

Your investment is usually paid off in 4-6 years regardless of the size of the system you install.
4kw $4960
6kw $6900
8kw $9200
Average feed-in tariff is 11.3 cents but this reducing to 9 cents in July.

** People are now encouraged to put more panels on their roof so better to install a bigger system at the beginning.

There is an economic and environmental benefit to solar panels.

Environmentallya 5kw system in Bayside is equal to saving 6.6 tonnes of CO2 annually and taking 2.2 cars off the road!

A Myth Exploded

  • It is untrue that the amount of energy to make solar panels costs more than what is saved.
  • In 1-2 years they pay back all energy used in their creation from mining, making, transporting to installing!!
  • Economic and Environmental benefits are there!!

Feed-In Tariffs

People ask why are we only paid 11 cents for power when we put into the grid and yet we must buy at 25 cents?

The retail tariff includes:

  • The companies generation costs at the power plant
  • Transmission costs to network to various suburbs
  • Distribution costs to maintain poles and wires
  • Administration costs when retailers bundle the lot together

Your feed-in tariff does not offset distribution and transmission costs.

15-19 cent feed-in tariff is probably the highest you will get – unless you were among the lucky early takers on premium feed-in tariffs of 60 and 25 cents. These rates not available now.

There has been fluctuation over the years – dropped as low as 5 – 8, up to 11-12, will be down again to 9 cents in July.

Some retailers have introduced time-varying feed-in tariffs because electricity is worth more depending on the time of day.

In the early morning and overnight little demand so off-peak. Early evening it is peak period.

What has Changed In Victoria?

  • There has been more demand because Hazelwood Coal Powered Station closed but also there is more solar going into the market.
  • Peak time is getting later and shorter.

Off-peak                    shoulder peak                       evening rates
7.1                              10.3                                           29

Solar panels peak period for generating is morning to the middle of the day when sun is hottest – to get an advantage of the movement of the sun, panels are now being aimed west as well as north because you want to generate power in the evenings.

Because of when most solar power is produced, it is not a good fit for time-varying feeds so make sure you

  • Become an all-electric home – disconnect from gas!
  • Set appliances like washing machines and dishwashers on timers
  • Install an electric hot water system, set the timer or make sure it runs during the day from solar
  • Reverse cycle air conditioners – set them to come on to heat or cool just before you come home – spread out their use

Batteries, Panels, Inverters

If you have a hybrid system you can charge a battery and leftover electricity is stored for reuse later in the day when the sun is not charging panels. A battery stores the excess generation from midday.

Why Add A Battery?

  • Save money
  • Store and reuse electricity
  • A back-up in case power goes out
  • Gives you energy independence
  • Supporting development of new technology

A typical battery that has a rated capacity of 10kw will always have 20% retained so usable capacity will be 8kw.

You must first charge the battery to have at least 8.9kw to get the 8kw and it is better to use the electricity from the panels when first generated.

A battery should pay for itself in 10 years or it is not worth the investment.

Different types of batteries:
1. Lead acid – 40% usable capacity – 10-year life like a car battery

  1. Lithium iron – type you get in phones/tablets etc. discharge quicker but like the lead acid, capacity still degrades over time.

(The above two have the more proven technology.)

  1. Flow battery sodium ion – 100% usable capacity and more environmentally friendly.

Go for smaller battery – one that is filled up every day and emptied overnight.
Retrofitting a battery onto an older system is always terrible payback and not economical yet.

Batteries are only economical if installed at same time as solar panels and you get ‘a deal’.

**However battery prices are coming down. It depends a lot on your usage and consumption and there are some good deals – shop around!

  • Batteries don’t have great benefit to the environment.
  • Long term it does benefit the grid and development of the technology and less money is needed for poles and wires.

Going Off The Grid-

  • For the average household, it is unlikely to be economic for decades. It will cost about $50,000.
  • You still need a petrol or diesel generator as back-up.
  • If $2000 annual bills – 25 years to pay going off the grid.
  • It is much better to increase your solar system and export to the grid.
  • Add more panels on the west facing roof to shift generator arc and it will be better payback than a battery. It may require a new or additional inverter.
  • install a hybrid inverter and get battery ready.

There will be new options to sell excess energy :

  1. Reposit – sell to wholesale market via Diamond Energy
  2. Smart Homes – energy management systems directing solar to where it is needed: diverters (hot water), charging electric cars where solar generating
  3. Renters will have options too
  4. Solar financing – through council rates, negotiating good deals.

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Question Time was Interesting

I love question time at events – hearing the thoughts and ideas of the audience, learning how much they have absorbed or what opinions they bring to an event…

In question time on Tuesday, a good point was made about the language we use – why talk about “payback” – we don’t use that term when we furnish our homes, renovate or decide to invest in having children!

Investing in solar panels should be regarded as an economic and environmentally sensible decision!

Another question raised the issue of quality of panels on the market – is German made best? (A few years ago German engineering and innovation considered the best, and in some people’s eyes, the only system to buy.)

Keirain said most German companies have moved operations to China and the majority of solar panel are made there now. He advised if you go with a good installer you will find they use good quality solar panel brand!

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Environment Victoria’s Efficiency Officer, Anne Martinelli

Environment Victoria want to encourage more solar and renewables. In Victoria,
our energy system already transforming – Hazelwood closed in 2017 – the 9th large power station in Australia to close in 5 years.

  • Renewable energy – large scale and household scale – transition inevitable as cost reduces.
  • How it is managed and who benefits is not guaranteed.

20% of Victorian climate pollution comes from our homes so upgrading efficiency is important.

Many households face significant barriers:

  • Access to accurate information – it is technically complex, the renewable sector changing rapidly, lots of misinformation around
  • Cost – hurdles to bill saving – those who need it the most can’t afford upfront costs.
  • Some people are locked out of rooftop solar for various reasons: they are renting, they live in an apartment block, the roof is unsuitable or not in right situation

Environment Victoria is focusing on making political parties have good policies for the coming November election.

  1. Home energy hubs like Scotland. A network of regional one-stop advisory service like what the old SEC Home Advisory Service used to be over 30 years ago!
    Tariffs efficiency assessments, retrofit organisations, access to financial assistance. One stop shop for information from trusted sources. Scale up existing council community sector services.
    Lots of organisations like ATA offer free advice but who knows they exist?
  2. No interest, rates-based financing through councils of efficiency and solar upgrades. Currently, the Victorian Government has a pilot scheme with 22 councils helping aged pensioners and low-income households upgrade to solar. They aim to have 1000 participants and are monitoring daytime consumption. This should be scaled statewide.
  3. Virtual Power Plant – a partnership between government, industry and retailers that will finance solar and battery upgrades for low-income households, including those in social housing.
  • No upfront costs, guaranteed household bills savings
  • Maximise wider market benefits of solar and batteries
    EG. South Australia Tesla batteries – company still owns battery but connecting 50,000 households in SA. Victoria could do three times that number – maybe scope with the election coming…

We need:

  • Energy efficiency (not necessarily solar) standards for rental homes. The Residential Tenancies Act renewal a great opportunity to set standards at a basic achievable level to keep affordable.
  • Make landlords invest in bill saving appliances, keep wiring and plugs efficient, LED lights.
  • Evidence suggests: 50% homes for sale rated 5 stars or greater
    40% rental houses = zero efficiency rating
  • We must set standards so rental properties have insulation etc – perhaps help landlords so they are not putting the costs on renters.
  • There are 600,000 rental homes in Victoria.

Climate Change Is Real.

Working towards a sustainable lifestyle in our cities and countryside must be a priority.
This November use your voting power wisely – ask your local candidate

  • do they have a commitment to renewables,
  • a fairer society,
  • a safer sustainable environment –

Then ask how they will achieve their targets!

repower focus statement

A Visit to Hotel Sorrento A Must For Writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lena took a selfie and included yours truly.

What makes this drama so popular?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

quoted from an Essay by Cate Kennedy 2015

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Taking our seats

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

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

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

And so I am Meg.

Who are you?

Are you Hilary – the broken but coping carer?

Are you Pippa – the feisty but sentimental younger sister?

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

Or Edwin – blindly intelligent and culturally bewildered?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Craven, The Australian

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

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

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

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

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

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Note the ironing board on the left!

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

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

‘Life sucks’, says Pippa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

quoted from an Essay by Cate Kennedy 2015

The Writer’s Craft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stagecraft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Purpose, Perspiration, Persistence – the Path to Publication!

 

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The above quote could be my mantra – I find joy in writing and teaching others to be confident writers.

  • Teaching others the various ways they can tell their stories.
  • Encouraging them to play with words until they find the right ones for whatever it is they are writing.
  • To move out of comfort zones, celebrate who they are and the life they have lived.
  • Write their legacy in whatever style they want, whether prose or poetry, fiction or fact, or a combination of both in creative non-fiction.

In the lessons, I prepare for my writing classes memories of my own surface along with an impetus to rediscover and rework writing from years gone by – in some cases discover prose and poetry I’d forgotten.

I often shake my head with bemusement or amazement and think: Did I write that? 

Forgetfulness – is it ageing or Alzheimer’s!!?

I’ll join the millions of others who Google and share a meme discovered because it suits!

forgetful quote

I know it is not de rigour to compliment yourself and I’ve always found it difficult to be self-promoting – it is much easier to promote anthologies that include other writers or the works of writer friends.

However, what a wonderful surprise this week to exchange emails with Matilda Butler, an amazing woman in the United States who helped me gain the confidence to tell my stories and make the first foray into online publishing in 2010!

Other stories followed on the website set up by Matilda and her friend and fellow editor, Kendra Bonnett: WomensMemoirs.com

And then three were chosen for a series of Kindle books in 2015, and these books have now been redesigned and published the traditional way.

Greetings to You…An Author in Seasons of Our Lives 

As one of the award-winning authors in the Seasons of Our Lives anthologies, I have exciting news for you. I invite you to join WomensMemoirs.com in celebrating the publication of paperback versions of the SEASONS OF OUR LIVES. The four volumes (SPRING, SUMMER, AUTUMN, WINTER) are filled with the best, the most inspiring award-winning stories — including yours.

The Kindle version generated a great deal of interest, book awards, rave reviews, bestseller status on Amazon, and we anticipate the paperback version will be equally popular — as well as providing you with the opportunity to let friends and family have their hands on your story.

Will you help us congratulate you and all the other award-winning memoir authors in these volumes by getting the word out about the new paperback version of these stories?

Many of your sister authors requested that these Kindle books be brought out in paperback. It definitely was a good idea, but life gets to be busy, much too busy.

In addition to regular blogging, writing, creating a new series of videos on Marketing, Publishing, and Writing (10+ hours of content to be announced in the coming weeks), and creating new products for our etsy.com stores, we found that it took more time than anticipated to create smart-looking volumes that you would be proud to own and give. These four volumes are finally available. 

These memoir anthologies won seven book awards, and stayed on the Kindle bestseller list for more than a week. A real success story.

Since that time, these stories have continued to resonate with readers across the US and many countries and are now also used by memoir teachers and coaches. These stories are not only inspirational. They are also exemplars of memoir writing.

We’re all modern women and like digital technology. BUT there is still something special and satisfying about holding a book in your hands, enjoying a story, setting it aside on the coffee table where it lands with a thud rather than a ping, and returning the next day to read more.

From May 14 – June 15, Seasons of our Lives – Spring, Summer, and Autumn are specially priced at just $9.97 on Amazon and the fourth season, Winter, is priced at $10.97. On June 16, these volumes increase in price to $11.97 and $12.97 respectively.

The email resonated with me!

Call me old-fashioned but to hold the hard copy in my hand was more thrilling than having a digital copy on my computer and I thank Matilda and Kendra for all their hard work making that dream a reality for the women whose stories are showcased in the four anthologies.

The links to the printed books are:

Seasons of Our Lives: Spring      https://amzn.to/2KklLXN
Seasons of Our Lives: Summer   https://amzn.to/2HWoSXq
Seasons of Our Lives: Autumn     https://amzn.to/2HUEGtH
Seasons of Our Lives: Winter       https://amzn.to/2KlyXLN

yellow rose with Helen keller quote

Writing In Tune With The Seasons

Ironically, I was in the process of searching what I had written about winter to prepare for lessons and discovered the story about my mother published in the series of Kindle books about the seasons.

And then Matilda’s email arrived…

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SEASONS OF OUR LIVES: WINTER includes 33 memoir vignettes and takeaways to get you thinking about your life, and perhaps writing your own stories. Five of these stories include a treasured family recipe along with the story and tell us of the scents of winter.

The mini-lessons that follow each award-winning story cover many of the topics important in memoir writing such as:

  • creating a memoir title,
  • crafting a powerful opening,
  • linking openings and closings,
  • choosing a powerful point of view,
  • incorporating sensory details for reader engagement,
  • adding character descriptions,
  • showing (not telling) emotions,
  • using dialogue effectively,
  • understanding how time and place can be used in tandem or as stand-alone elements,
  • making word choice a priority,
  • discerning the different impacts of present versus past tense,
  • considering vignette topics to write about,
  • choosing between letting the reader figure out the story behind the story or spelling out all the details,

And much more!

IMG_5917.jpgI was fortunate to meet Matilda and her husband Bill when I went to the USA in 2012 and we spent a lovely day together as they showed me Portland, Oregon.

Although we are almost down to the ‘Christmas” staying-in-touch category I value their friendship and the happy memories we shared.

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Seasons Of Our Lives – memoir for everyone

The stories in the four volumes will charm, intrigue, captivate and inspire you because they speak of and highlight all our lives with details of :

  • childhood,
  • coming of age,
  • adulthood, and
  • ageing

At the same time, the memoir vignettes encompass:

  • passion,
  • friendship,
  • love,
  • sacrifice,
  • betrayal,
  • disappointment,
  • survival, and even
  • unexpected joy

The stories tell of lives intersecting with history, profiling ordinary yet extraordinary experiences unique to the authors – and at their core, they tell of all our lives.

Seasons of Our LivesSpring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter include more than 100 award-winning true stories. They’ll make you laugh. Cry. Feel joy. Experience sorrow.

I have stories in three of the books: Spring, Autumn and Winter.

Rereading them in print was exciting but reading Matilda and Kendra’s critique and  “take-away” advice after all the stories an insightful and inspirational addition to the value of the book, not just as a memento but as a teaching tool.

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The Writer’s Path

I never envisaged that my story would win any writing competition run by WomensMemoirs.com nor did I think them good enough to be chosen for the book series – first Kindle publishing now traditional…

… the path to publication certainly does involve having a purpose (what will we write about?) perspiration (all those hours of writing, rewriting, editing and rewriting) and persistence (for every story sent somewhere you add to your pile of rejections!).

The Editor & Publisher’s Path

Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett have co-authored several books together:

  • Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Women To” Generation Tells Its Story – a collective memoir
  • Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep – a manual to improve your writing
  • Tales of Our Lives: Fork In The Road
  • Tales of Lives: Reflection Pond

Kendra is a blogger, has ghostwritten several books, is a marketing executive who develops marketing materials for corporations, and a speaker and memoir coach.

Matilda is a psychologist, blogger, online and in-person memoir coach and writing conference speaker. She writes and teaches in Oregon and offers classes in Hawaii.

In recent months, Matilda’s husband Bill has had several operations to save his sight, yet through it all, she kept working on the layout for the anthologies.

Feedback from other authors reveals the covers have their desired effect — grabbing the (potential) reader. It was not a seamless process converting the digital books to print – especially as several years have passed since initial creation.

Matilda and Kendra decided to have a completely different layout and new covers.

The interior layout worked out well. That’s part of what took me so long. The first proof copies looked terrible. I started over with the layout and got another set of proof copies. Then I saw additional elements I could put in. After a couple more rounds of getting the printed proofs, I finally was happy!

We have memoir coaches using them in teaching and that’s quite rewarding.

The books have won the following awards:

  • Next Generation Indie, First place, Women’s Issues
  • Global E-book Award, Gold, Writing Non-Fiction and Silver, Anthologies
  • eLit Book Award, Silver in Anthologies and Bronz in Women’s Issues
  • Los Angeles Book festival, Runner Up, Anthologies
  • San Francisco Book Festival, Runner Up, Anthologies
  • New York Book festival, Runner Up, Anthologies
  • Northwest Book Festival, Honorable Mention, Anthologies

I am humbled and privileged to be part of such a wonderful writing community and holding the books in my hands has given me a little extra oomph to knuckle down and write some more.

Often my writing takes second place to my teaching and helping others achieve their writing goals – Matilda and Kendra have inspired me that there are enough hours in the day and days in the year to do both!

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Neighbourhood Houses – The Heart Of Our Community

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Chelsea Heights Community Centre captures the essence of neighbourhood houses!

On Monday, under the auspices of Longbeach Place where I teach, I did a creative writing workshop at the Kingston Arts Centre as part of a month-long promotion of community houses in the City of Kingston. This was open to the public for free.

Nine community/neighbourhood houses in the City of Kingston were given display space in the galleries to promote activities under the theme  ‘the heart of the community‘.

The promotion also coincided with Volunteer Week. The Council is always keen to encourage people to volunteer and neighbourhood houses are a great place to start a fulfilling journey!

If you are keen to help others, want to share or learn a skill, meet people and help curb your own or their isolation,  contribute to the wellbeing and social capital of the community, then there is no better place to start than a neighbourhood house!

What is a Neighbourhood House?

A Neighbourhood House is a not-for-profit local organisation set up to provide social, educational, and recreational activities for a community, in a welcoming, supportive, non-judgemental environment.

Managed by a volunteer committee and some paid administrative staff, it operates with the assistance of volunteers. There is a wealth of accredited and non-accredited courses provided by teachers like myself, but also niche groups set up such as Longbeach Place’s Yarn Art & Craft Storybook Trail, or groups for carers to have time-out, family history buffs, knitting and art enthusiasts… the list is endless.

Neighbourhood Houses have space to host morning teas, conferences, annual general meetings – regular meetings for almost any community group you can imagine. My Mordialloc Writers’ Group met at a neighbourhood house for over 20 years.

Some of the houses are Registered Training Organisations and many are Learn Locals like Longbeach Place, offering VET courses.

Neighbourhood Houses receive some funding from State and Local Governments and donations or partnerships with private enterprises and philanthropists.

Longbeach display Arts Centre

Each paper heart on the display board celebrating Longbeach Place was written by a student. In a word or phrase, they described what the neighbourhood house meant to them:

The contributions from the other houses who also used hearts, echoed the recurring sentiments of a safe, friendly environment, nurturing learning and creativity with lots of fun and educational activities.

When Did Neighbourhood Houses Start?

The Neighbourhood House movement began in Victoria in 1973 with the aim of offering people a supportive, non-threatening environment to share skills and mix socially within local communities.

Neighbourhood Houses represent and serve their community. They are accessible drop-in centres that care about social wellbeing, personal and community growth. They often attract and welcome those who feel isolated, neglected, lonely and forgotten or those who have just arrived and want to “fit in”… they provide a learning environment like no other.

The people who attend usually live, study or work within the local area, and courses and activities offered are dictated by the local community and their needs.

This makes each place unique and some develop particular strengths.

Many Houses started with specific groups in mind depending on their locality.

The 1970s – A Time Of Social Change

It was the 70s and the Women’s Liberation Movement was growing. Most community houses grew from women’s involvement and demands. They saw the need for programmes for people with disability, victims of domestic violence, new migrants and multicultural groups,  and Aboriginal/ Torres Strait Islanders, women who needed confidence in returning to study or retraining.

Women wanted childcare and playgroups for ‘stay-at-home mums’ and a place for all people to be treated equally regardless of race, religion, gender or ability. They may have left the workforce to have children but still wanted to share their skills or learn new ones as they adapted to motherhood and parenting.

1972 was a watershed in Australian political history – the Federal Labor Government of Gough Whitlam had a strong commitment to community programmes, to women and to children. State Governments followed their lead – times and our culture a’changing.

Federal money released for the first time to fund programs that actively encouraged women back to study and into the workforce by making higher education and training courses free. There were funds for women’s refuges, programs to assist families, and for childcare.

Many women ‘went back to school’ via courses at neighbourhood houses first and gained the confidence and qualifications to enter tertiary studies. Older women whose families were almost grown up returned to study and used the neighbourhood houses to fill gaps in their education but also to develop courses and activities to help others.

Wellbeing And Creativity

Neighbourhood houses help manage social change and prevent social isolation.

The last few years the Men’s Shed Movement has grown out of community houses. The benefits of men having somewhere to go to cope with adjusting to being alone, coping with health issues, retrenchments, early retirement and adjusting to years of extra life expectancy are universally accepted now.

People often discover and develop creative talents in arts and crafts suppressed at school or never given a chance to grow. Creative courses in neighbourhood houses are often the first step for people, at last, being able to show their artistic or writing talents.

Neighbourhood Houses Victoria

Neighbourhood Houses Victoria (NHV) was established in the early 1970s as the peak body for Victorian Neighbourhood Houses and Learning Centres.

  • It currently has a membership of over 380 organisations – 90% of the 390 Houses and Centres in the state.
  • The mission of the organisation is to support and develop the movement of Neighbourhood Houses and Learning Centres as individual organisations and as a collective.
  • This past year they spearheaded a campaign to have the State Government boost funding for the sector.
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And the Andrews Labor Government did deliver by boosting investment in the neighbourhood house network by $21.8 million over the next four years.
I received a letter from Minister for Families and Children Jenny Mikakos MP in response to a postcard I sent as part of the campaign where she confirmed:

The Andrews Labor Government is backing our neighbourhood houses as we want to ensure more Victorians have access to the vital employment, training and volunteering services that many neighbourhood houses provide in our local communities across Victoria.

 Well done to everyone who campaigned for such a great result.

It is always a relief to have guaranteed funding so that courses can be planned – and with rapidly changing and increasing demographics neighbourhood house managers and committees are kept on their toes!

Writing Creatively At Kingston Arts Centre

I transplanted my usual Monday Class at Longbeach to Moorabbin along with an open invitation to the public.

At one stage, when five of the regulars sent apologies and I was struck by a dreaded winter bug I toyed with following the line of the old song, “let’s call the whole thing off…”

I had no idea what awaited me on Monday but how thrilling to greet three regular students plus some past students and friends – and a lady who said,

“I’ve never written creatively before.”

The two hours disappeared fast along with the chocolate biscuits I brought and the tea and coffee the Arts Centre provided!  Yet, we were too busy to have a designated break.

After brief introductions, we did some productive brainstorming and then with heads down the writing began.  After each exercise people shared completed sentences, paragraphs, even vignettes to the prompts. Fascinating and vastly different pieces of writing.

I targeted “the senses.” These are often neglected but improve our writing when included. The variety of responses rich and rewarding.

I love writing workshops!

At the conclusion of the exercise on the sense of smell, one participant concluded, ‘I realise I have a limited vocabulary when it comes to describing smells.’

She continued to suggest others do what she does, “when reading I write unusual and interesting words I discover in a notebook.  It helps improve my writing. Now,  I’ll watch out for how other writers describe smells.’

This is a perfect example of the wonderful feedback and help fellow writers give each other and how writing exercises and sharing in class can improve our writing.

A Personal Story

A few weeks ago, one of my past students from my 2016 class at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House emailed me. English was not her first language and she needed help with a private matter.

It was great to catch up for a coffee and fortunately, I was able to help her. She is an educated, enterprising woman who had been a journalist in Japan but like many who write facts for a living, she wanted to explore creative writing.

She lacked confidence in her own ability and struggled with the nuances of English. In the class, I encouraged her to express herself through poetry.

Her perceptions about adjusting to life in Melbourne and being able to express her feelings about other aspects of her life was a great healing journey but also led to valuable discussions in class.

She blossomed but I’ll let her tell you in her own words what attending a class at a community house meant:

My Writing Class
Naoko

I’ve never really liked classes
I’m often less enthusiastic
preferring to study on my own
I was not a good student in writing class

Yet there are good memories
reminiscent of days visiting relatives –
a bit awkward but feeling secure

In class I remembered the joy of writing
I was accepted for who I was
I made an inspiring Turkish friend
I learned authenticity is the essence of writing
I got to know each classmate’s story
From warm words of condolence
I was encouraged to keep my head high
No matter what I faced

I will take home these great gifts I received
From my writing class at Mordialloc beach

And looking at the past I regret
that I have missed the beauties of life
from being arrogant in classes

I only loved my Mum when I was a kid
And growing up into adulthood
I tended to only love one person at a time
I regret now that I may have missed
the beauties of other people
by being narrow-minded on some occasions

I will take home great gifts about life
received from my writing teacher at Mordialloc beach.

When she left for an extended trip to Japan, Naoko gifted me her poem and a beautiful watercolour she had painted. Gifts I will treasure along with her work published in the class anthology.

The poems and stories of all past students are important to me and when I read their words I hear their voice, imagine them in class… memories I value. Another of my students who has been attending my classes for a long time said exactly the same thing – she reads the anthologies and remembers.

Write your stories – leave a legacy – leave an impression for someone to remember!

Writing In the 21st Century

We are in the digital age and the demands of readers have changed – there are websites, blogs, e-books – all read on a variety of devices with different screens and parameters.

If writers want to reach readers our methods must change – how you adapt is your choice. For many people, the traditional printed paper is still what they want to read and how they want to be published.

There is room for both traditional and digital publishing and whether you write with pen and paper or prefer to tap your laptop or iPad you benefit from regular writing.

Writing classes or workshops can be a first step to discovering not only what you want to write while learning the tools of the craft, but also how you want to be published. More importantly, they can keep you motivated.

Writing courses proliferate online and in bricks and mortar but for convenience and cost, community houses are worth a look.  We throw in ambience, friendship and sharing of stories and ideas.  We learn from each other and the weekly sessions eliminate the isolation and loneliness many writers suffer.

Community houses provide computer classes too – an introduction and welcome to the digital age that is usually self-paced – again the ambience and friendship are free!

The two places I work have several courses and I can vouch for their excellence at Godfrey Street and Longbeach Place.

And if you want or see a need for a specialised course, put in a suggestion or offer to run it – that’s the beauty of neighbourhood houses! The community owns it and the community is you!

What are you waiting for?

Student, teacher, volunteer, participant – whatever your label there is a place for you in a neighbourhood house – drop in soon!

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Willsmere Beauty Transforms A Beastly Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History Attached to Willsmere

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

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

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

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

Famous Patients

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

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

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

Kew Asylum

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Life on The Wards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gardens of Trees, Flowers, and More Trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Get to Willsmere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kew Cottages

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

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

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

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

explanation of cottage sytsem at KEW

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

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

“I have a job.”

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

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

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

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

Dad relaxed and asked Trevor what music he liked!

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

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

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

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

A Tragedy

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

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

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

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

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

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