I returned to work on Tuesday and of course, my writing students wanted to know how my trip went likewise friends and family.
I’ve been overseas for 96 days – a whole term – and as I return to timetables and responsibilities the best way of sharing such an amazing trip is writing about it.
The reflections won’t be chronological or a travelogue but flashbacks and memories in the form of anecdotes, poems and essays. They’ll be triggered by words, sounds, smells, tastes, events, people, postcards and photographs (I took too many!) and whatever else inspires me.
Where did I Go?
I flew to Mongolia and travelled the Trans Siberian Railway to Helsinki and then London – a journey that’s been on my bucket list for years.
I visited family and old friends in England staying in London, Cirencester in the Cotswolds and Colchester, another town with strong links to Roman times. I spent time in Barnes, Bath, Bibury, Burford and Bourton-0n-The-Water and other places with names beginning with a different letter of the alphabet!
I visited friends and family in Scotland: Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Renton and Cardross and surrounding localities like Inverurie, Loch Lomond, Loch Carron, Rhu, Helensburgh, Oban, Plockton, Inverness, Culloden and Falkirk.
I visited the Isles of Skye and Arran researching family history and revisiting my own past.
I toured Orkney and Shetland islands -to cross another item off my bucket list.
I could be flippant and say ‘why not?’ however, that wouldn’t be helpful writing this blog post or to those reading it.
Fulfilling several travel dreams high on the list of answers.
(I blame my father for my wanderlust. He bought a set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedias when I was seven years old. The ten volumes captivated and fascinated. Reading chapters sowed seeds of restlessness and cultivated a desire for knowledge and adventure. )
I like challenging myself to ignore limits of ageing and osteoarthritis and I wanted to regain the confidence lost after my mastectomy. As my baggage label announced ‘adventure before dementia’ – the fear of that disease ever present since my Dad’s diagnosis and death.
Life had become predictable and enthusiasm for writing projects disappeared. I feared my teaching was stale. A change was needed, echoing Gough Whitlam’s campaign, it was time.
Time to introduce some excitement, step into the unknown, travel to different time zones, open up to new experiences and ways of thinking.
Ignore the negativity and prove to myself and others that the world has more people with good intentions and good in their hearts than the constant sensational news reports would have us believe.
How To Survive Strange Beds
Mairi Neil July 2017
‘to sleep perchance to dream…’
Toss and turn, turn and toss
an uncomfortable trampoline
too narrow mattress or oversized
tangled in unfamiliar sheets
repress a tortured scream
as thoughts unbidden creep
a monstrous murky mist
–is the bedding clean?
Facebook flickers, Twitter tweets,
parading a plague of bed bugs
supported by a stream of
suited and serious newsreaders
backdropped by dinosaur-sized bugs
horror story feeders
hidden cameras reveal cleaners who don’t clean.
passport checks evaded
no fear of armed border guards
x-ray machines and scanners
no match for expert subterfuge
who sees intestinal worms
bed bugs, or flea circuses?
Counting sheep to sleep
but head hits
brick pillow or fluffy mountain
Never an in-between too hot too cold too salty
the cultural story we know Air-conditioning? Heater? Open window? Ah, fresh air!
Silence is golden
until jet engines roar
jumbled voices amplify
motor mayhem, frequent footsteps
a cacophony of chaos
thin walls, rattling doors
barking dogs prowling cats
jet-lagged over active brain…
Insomnia insinuates interrupts
the comfort zone of relaxation to sleep perchance to dream…
I wrote this poem in class after an example in an 11-part primer on writing contemporary poetry, available online from Mslexia Magazine.
Your subject will never be new – it’s all been done before. But a contemporary poem must offer a fresh take on its theme. You need to surprise your reader and force them to look at the world in a new way. You can do this by creating some frisson in your language, with a startling metaphor or unusual syntax. Or you can approach the topic from an oblique or unexpected angle.
Linda France, Mslexia’s Poetry Advisor 1999-2005
I’m not sure if I succeeded the way Linda France would approve but one of the complaints/comments made to me and by me was having to adjust (or not) to ‘strange’ beds. And one of the wonderful delights of returning home was the familiarity and comfort of my own bed where of course I dream of travelling!
It may be a first world problem or middle-class obsession but the fear of ‘picking up something’, whether it’s skin irritations, tinea or gastro, a common topic of conversation among seasoned travellers and casual tourists.
I exploited these fears in my poem, however, I never had to worry at any time in my recent travels despite sharing berths on trains and ferries, sleeping in a Mongolian ger, a Russian homestay, and a variety of hostels and hotels.
Plenty of mattresses and pillows to get used to and I’m grateful for my osteopath’s muscle massaging technique since I returned. It helps my body get over the inevitable tossing and turning in strange beds and the hauling, lifting, packing and unpacking of luggage during the last three months.
Poetry With A Purpose
We’re doing poetry this term at Godfrey Street as we prepare to create the annual calendar where writers respond to the work of artists at the House.
Although the calendar requires haiku or terse verse, other forms of poetry will be studied and attempted as we learn the techniques of the craft: style, imagery, lines, punctuation, rhyme, rhythm, sound, stanza, subject, title and voice.
Your Turn To Write – We Tried This In Class
Adapted from an exercise recommended by Linda France:
Think of something you’d like to do. Choose an activity with various stages or metaphorical layers:
fall out of love, learn to love, find a new hobby, learn to fly like a bird, swim with dolphins, exercise in a pool, sing in a choir, sing in the shower, dance with strangers, dance like no one is watching, dance through life, meditate, lose weight, save the world, cope with bad service, use public transport, recognise happiness…
■ Give your poem a title of the form ‘How to…’ (fall out of love, swim,
etc.) and write a set of instructions, addressing the reader directly and guiding them through the process, or an experience – or whatever you want to do. This is your poem, just be authentic.
■ Use everyday language, but avoid clichés.
■ Focus closely and include lots of physical detail. Think strong VERBS, concrete NOUNS.
■ Include some reported speech.
Have fun and challenge yourself, like I did writing a poem about an aspect of travel. When I was on Orkney I discovered a wonderful photographer and poet, Edwin Rendall.
Edwin’s work appears on cards and bookmarks and this short verse coupled with his photography I particularly love – perhaps with practice, I’ll be able to create something similar to convey my memories.
There was joy in the return from my travels, but sadness too when I heard that Frank Jones had passed away on 9th of May, aged 92 years. His funeral held at St Brigid’s Mordialloc on 18th May 2017.
As a longtime member of Mordialloc Writers’ Group, Frank’s poetry and stories have graced eight of our nine anthologies. Another broken link with the group I founded in 1995 and although I am no longer active at Mordialloc workshops, I’m sure there are many Mordi writers who grieve Frank’s passing.
Frank celebrated his 90th birthday at our regular Readings By The Bay and was the oldest writer in our last anthology, Kingston My City, contributing a marvellous reflective essay on his 65-year relationship with Mordialloc and the City of Kingston.
A natural born writer, Frank loved poetry – especially ‘bush’ and rhyming poetry – ‘the old -fashioned kind’, he said to me when he first joined the group. He wrote from the heart, a kind compassionate heart.
I’ve never forgotten when he and his wife Joan turned up at the inaugural Readings By The Bay. Frank stood up and recited from memory, a poem he had written to Joan on their wedding day 50 years before! A romantic at heart too.
When Joan was diagnosed with breast cancer Frank suffered deeply and was shattered when she died. He, of course, used writing to share their story. Another poem showing his love for Joan as she struggled with treatment.
I lost my partner, John in 2003, and also had a breast cancer diagnosis in 2010. These shared sorrows added a depth to my relationship with Frank I didn’t have with other writers in the group.
Frank and I lived a street apart and sometimes bumped into each other when he walked to U3A, or latterly to his acupuncturist in McDonald Street. He’d often ring me and ask for help editing or to give an opinion on a writing idea, or to share the joy of publication.
My daughters knew who was calling before Frank offered his name – he had a distinctive Aussie twang and spoke at the level you’d expect from someone going deaf.
‘Mairi, is that you? It’s Frank Jones,’ he boomed.
When Frank had bouts of illness that kept him from workshops or readings, I still included him in any anthology project because he always produced a memorable poem or story.
He was a writer who understood deadlines, listened to and appreciated any feedback. Also that rarity – Frank accepted the editor’s suggestions and decisions. A boon for those who helped edit the anthologies.
Frank referred to me as his ‘writing teacher’ although he never attended any of my classes!
Frank used his life experiences to produce interesting and contemporary pieces: –
growing up in the country (Kyneton area),
serving in WW2 in the RAAF
working in the building trade (a brickie)
and newsagency business,
his love of family,
his British heritage
love of swimming – he was in the icebreaker club
love of golf,
his love of dogs, especially a particular pet
his determination to continue to learn the craft of writing – he wrote stories, poems and a play
his commitment to his Christian Faith and volunteer work for St Vinnie’s
A prolific writer, I can remember how proud Frank was when his family collated his poems into a beautiful leather bound volume. He brought it to Sunday Readings to show us.
What a wonderful gift for a writer – your life’s work in a gold-lettered book!
The book was for one of his significant birthdays. Frank said it was after he became an ‘OBE’, ‘over bloody eighty’!
Frank’s honesty and sense of humour will be missed too. I have many photographs of Mordialloc Writers’ events over the 21 years but only the last few years are digital and easy to add to this blog post. Below is a selection from the last five years.
In Mordialloc Writer’ eighth anthology, Off the Rails, 2012, Frank wrote about attending an interstate swimming carnival – he had a pool in his backyard and swam every morning – perhaps a key to his longevity.
To Albury Grand Railway Station
Hurrah! I proclaim we’re away on the train
Without fanfare or celebration
We glide down the tracks and never look back
As we leave old Spencer Street Station.
Our journey profound, we are Albury bound
In their carnival, we’re listed to swim.
We’ll strive to be best as our bodies protest
Even though we are taut, fit, and trim.
Onwards on time through a mesh of train lines
We view backyards tightly compacted
We wonder amazed, some even quite dazed
By urban plans neatly protracted.
We pay no heed as the train picks up speed
The wheels clattering faster and faster
No one complains as we head for the plains
Where drought is a common disaster.
Soon a voice loud and clear announces
!e cafeteria is ready to serve us
!reading through seats to sample the treats
The swaying train a challenge, if nervous.
Cars on the roads and trucks with their loads
All head for unknown destinations
!e train’s horn blasts every crossing we pass
No cause for great consternation.
Wangaratta and snowfields well passed
Signposted Canberra a further location
The Murray in sight and Wodonga’s delights
We are nearing our destination.
Speed now declines … it’s the end of the line
We’ll get on without hesitation
You won’t read in the papers about our capers
Or the fun of our jubilation.
We savoured the home, of ‘Albury’s Own’
So many sacrificed for this nation
On the hill high, their memorials lie
To overlook Albury’s historic Grand Station.
Frank wrote from the heart expressing himself in a language he understood and used daily – the best qualifications a poet can have – he was himself! He didn’t try to emulate another style or be ‘poetic’. His words authentic. Frank Jones, the poet, writer, and raconteur will be missed.
One of the first poems of Frank’s that our group published is one I have never forgotten and is alluded to in the title of this blog post. It is one I mentioned to others when on my recent travels.
I spent a lot of time overseas visiting cemeteries. Not just chasing information about relatives but because I find them fascinating historical records. Discoveries are inspiring and intriguing, headstones holding so many stories.
Sadness too – all those people who have lived and by the state of some graves, are forgotten, or the family line has died.
Frank Jones – a rich legacy indeed – thank you!
You will be remembered as more than a pause between two dates.
(Warning: Indigenous Australians are advised that the content and some of the links from this blog include images or names of people now deceased.)
NAIDOC WEEK 2017 – 2-9 July
NAIDOC – National Aborigines & Islanders Day Observance Committee organises celebrations every year in the first full week of July.
This year the theme “Our Languages Matter” emphasised and celebrated the role that indigenous languages play in cultural identity by linking people to their land and water and in the transmission of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ history, spirituality and rites, through story and song.
Last year, encouraged by my good friend, writer, and award-winning blogger, Lisa Hill, I reviewed books in the ever-increasing catalogue of indigenous literature. Lisa hosts an Indigenous Literature Week on her ANZ LitLovers LitBlog.
Most people I know who travel Australia will not have read this 1988 publication. It was an expensive coffee table book years ago but well-produced with an intensity of detail and gorgeous coloured photographs of iconic Aussie landscapes!
Some of the information is confronting, but all of it enriching. Adding to that important store of human knowledge. I guarantee it will change the way you look at the landscape of our continent and of many of the places you already know, and perhaps you may look differently at many of the debates around Aboriginal Land Rights, Australia or Invasion Day and the importance of retaining and teaching language and culture.
The book is –
A pictorial guide to Highway One, Central Australian and Tasmanian sites and places important to traditional and contemporary Aboriginal life; includes history, art, religion of particular clans, present communities and organisations, biographies; many archival photographs.
Here is a snippet about Hamilton near Geelong, the map showing many different language groups in that corner of Victoria alone – nine clans – how many of these languages left?
To learn about the history of our country from those who have been caretakers for thousands of years, to learn about the spiritual places holding their sacred stories makes it a special traveller’s guide. A book worth reading again and again. To be read for understanding and appreciation, not for directions or entertaining experiences.
It is not a Lonely Planet guide or RACV road atlas!
However, it’s worth putting in the caravan, camper trailer, or four wheel drive if you’re touring ‘grey nomads’ or a family that tours together. This is the history not taught in our school curriculum, or just beginning to be included.
Not necessarily bedtime reading (unless you have a big bed and plenty of elbow room) but sitting around the campfire or when having a BBQ in a campsite, you can share the knowledge and/or book.
The book tells of many nations, clans and groups adapting to life in temperate coastal regions, tropical rainforests, living by inland waterways or mighty rivers, travelling wild coastline and surviving the desert by trading with other clans.
… the Mitakoodi people in the Cloncurry district used a small type of net which they obtained in trading from the Woonamurra people who lived to the north. The Kalkadoons acquired kunti (porcupine or spinifex grass gum) from the Buckingham Downs region to the south.
(Visit the Kalkadoon Cultural Centre located at Rotary Hill.) page 144
Burnum Burnum’s Aboriginal Australia is the first book ever to offer a personal, Aboriginal vision of this, the world’s greatest island.
Through over 300 stunning colour pictures and 150 black and white archival photographs, many of which have never been published before, and through the words of one of this country’s best-known and most respected Aboriginal people, this unique book takes the reader on a journey around the continent, an unforgettable journey that reveals an Australia rarely experienced by its white inhabitants.
Creation stories are told and although most Melburnians are aware of Bunjil the eagle it’s fascinating to read slightly different versions and explanations for Port Phillip Bay, Mornington Peninsula, and the River Yarra’s twisting trail from Warrandyte.
This extract about ancient bones discovered in 1965 rivals the speculation about burial sites in Orkney and Shetland, where I just spent two weeks exploring.
I was 12 years old in 1965 but can’t remember hearing about this at school or university when I studied Australian history.
Jane and I knew Burnum Burnum in the 1970s although he was first introduced as Harry Penrith. We saw his transformation after seeking to get closer to his Aboriginality he researched his family and took his Grandfather’s name.
A member of the Stolen Generation, he could finally be himself – Burnum Burnum!
Here is part of the Foreword…
For me this book represents a lifetime’s work, a journey to find my own roots in this great country. I was born in 1936, under the family gum tree at Mosquito Point, by the side of Wallaga Lake. But, under the policies of the day, I was seized by government officials and separated (at 3 months) from my family. For the next ten years, I grew up on a mission near Nowra, before being moved to the Kinchela Boys Home, near South West Rocks, where I became the first Aborigine to gain a bronze medallion in surf life-saving. My sister was sent to Cootamundra Aboriginal Girls Home, separated from me by more than 1600 kilometres…
This book is… an attempt to give the traveller a chance to view this extraordinary country as it was seen by the original Australians… Modern ecology can learn a great deal from a people who managed and maintained their world so well for 50,000 years.
… Australians are gaining a new pride in their real heritage, the one which covers 2000 generations. The story has an inevitable edge of sadness, as we understand the process and pattern of dispossession suffered after 1788. This material has been included not to provoke guilt, but to give a perception of the extraordinary differences between the original Australians and the invaders who came in 1788.
In most areas of early contact, they were greeted warmly by the Australians, who had no idea that these strange white people intended to stay…
In Europe, as people developed their civilisation from the caves to the cathedrals, they left clear evidence of their achievement for future generations to admire. In Australia, the land itself is the cathedral and worship is not confined to any four walls. Each step is a prayer and every form in the landscape – and everything that moves in it – was put there specifically for the people to use and manage…
I hope the reader will find no bitterness in the story; the past cannot be turned back… The challenge of the future is… an acceptance of the past, the first step to a positive future… no one people have a sole franchise on the ability to feel an affinity with this timeless landscape.
This book resonates more with me now than when I bought it all those years ago because of the special connection to Harry/Burnum Burnum. I’ve finished a personal trek myself, returning to my birth country (touched upon in a previous post).
My father was Scottish and my mother Irish, and I visited Scotland and Northern Ireland retracing their childhood influences, and my own.
Here are Burnum Burnum’s thoughts:
All around Melbourne, the spirit of my great great grandmother is written on the landscape. When I drive through eastern Victoria I do so with a great sense of reverence, dreaming my way through the landscape of my ancestors and my birth, I can feel the spirit of my ancestors in many places.
This book weaves a rich tapestry of people, places, flora, fauna, history, mythology, reality and Dreamtime.
Forever relevant, it will earn its keep on your bookshelf for generations.
Does travel broaden the mind or just weary the body?
After 96 days away, I returned to Mordialloc on July 4th, and echoing Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, I agree ‘there’s no place like home.’
Certainly, no place as comfortable as your own bed and pillow! However, unlike Dorothy, returning home was more than just clicking my heels together.
The flight from London via Abu Dhabi entailed 24 hours travelling, including a two-hour stopover in the United Arab Emirates. Waiting time appeared shorter with increased security checks, a long walk to the departure gate for Melbourne flight, and a welcome cold beer and chat to a fellow passenger met on the first leg of my flight.
Laura lives in Melbourne too, loves books and writing and her journey to the UK, to trace family roots in Northern Ireland, mirrored some of my own experiences.
My journey longer and more convoluted, fulfilling a teenage dream to travel the Trans-Siberian Railway and on reaching Britain visit places in my birth country not visited before.
I cover the islands of Orkney and Shetland and spent more time exploring Aberdeen and Edinburgh than on previous visits. I caught up with friends and relatives rarely seen, some never met – one cousin last encountered in 1973, plus a dear friend from high school who came to Australia as an exchange student from Japan!
I discover Colchester, Barnes and Richmond – places near London never explored the five previous sojourns to England – the last visit twenty years ago.
Another world ago – John was alive, I was younger and my girls were children …
This solo trip could not be more different from the outset. The luggage tag a girlfriend gave me partly true!
But unlike past travels I not only planned the journey but hoped the process, the places visited, the people met and paying attention to the details and events along the way would help me rediscover a joy in writing – not just recording or reporting.
I need to discover a purpose more than the journey or destination.
I want to write the way I encourage my students to write.
I hope to produce something worth reading.
I want to leave a legacy for my daughters.
I need to know if random notes, fragments of thoughts, dreams, ideas and triggered memories could mean something and give meaning to not only this journey but others taken.
For some time now I’ve felt a fraud, exhorting others to polish and publish their writing while mine could not even light a fire under kindling, let alone interest a reader.
I needed to regain enthusiasm and originality. I needed the energy and desire to finish pieces of writing gathering dust and silverfish – or have the courage to throw it out and set my sights on another way to earn a living and pass the time!
What is the Creative Process?
The creative process is always a journey into the unknown but my imagination and writing seemed stale and predictable, mystery and miracles absent – much like my life, a little voice whispered.
Something had to change, I had to change and perhaps a term away from teaching and going ‘on the road’ to mark off more of the ‘bucket list’ compiled since John’s death and my mastectomy, the catalyst needed.
As I stare at the scribbles in notebooks, browse through the thousands of photos and reflect on the past few weeks I wonder if it is enough to reignite my passion and confirm the advantages of travel … quantity is not necessarily quality!
At the moment jet lag and injuries from a fall in my last two weeks of travel tend to go with the weary body rather than broadened mind or successful return of writing mojo!
However, a couple of more visits to my local osteopath should sort out the physical muscles and a few more nights of decent sleep and days of walking the dog will banish the jet lag.
Today I managed to type up a page of notes and put the words into some sort of structure – retracing my steps through the words on the page I recall exactly where I was and how I felt.
It may make sense to others who travel the same questioning road.
A Pause Pondering Purpose
Mairi Neil May 2017
I choose a window table,
jam jar posie centrepiece beckoning,
the desire for scones and tea awakened
by the warm comforting aromas
drifting from a steam-filled kitchen.
The cafe noise melts and murmuring voices
from a nearby radio stir memories…
family stories merge with tales absorbed
from the relics of the ancient past
embedded in the cobbled streets walked,
the castle ruins explored, and churches
of monumental proportions visited.
The sea a grey turmoil through misty glass,
eyes imagine selkies safeguarding those
who use this highway from the islands.
So many of your countrymen seafarers –
my ancestors and your descendants.
Did your eyes focus on a distant vessel?
Did you long to leave the confines of land
or did the terror of history leave no choice?
A fat and fuzzy bumblebee attracted to the flowers
flits purposefully from Daisy to Bluebell…
perhaps that’s how it is for us all –
our destiny mapped from birth.
What explanation for my innate restlessness?
The emotion stirred by the cry of gulls,
emerging from patchwork clouds
to wheel, wander, whoosh above?
They bob and land like origami kites
captive to the wind and unpredictable sea
as sailing ships of old and ferries of today.
Salt water always the lifeblood of islands,
feeding and clothing islanders, providing jobs,
this place no different except for its past
fraught with fear, fights, flights, and elusive freedom…
Peopled by Norsemen, Gaels, Celts,
Anglo-Saxons, Spanish and more…
Strong tea melts buttered scone,
the warmth of my mother’s memory
and the radio’s jaunty Scottish tune
conspire to make me smile.
Who am I? What made me, me?
The chasing of ancestors for answers
does this path have purpose?
Okay, I admit some of the above-mentioned creepy crawlies are beautiful (actually only the butterfly and ladybug) and I understand insects, in fact, all creatures have a place in the ecosystem, but lately there has been more of the creep factor than beauty!
I’ll confess up front to an ambivalence towards spiders – a creature Australia seems to have too many of and of course, they love my old weatherboard house and surrounds.
I look out the kitchen window and the webs are there.
I walk out to the front porch and the spiders are there along with some other strange insects!
Daughter, Mary Jane complains often about the spider webs stretching from her car mirrors to the garden bed. They appear no matter where she parks in the driveway.
Daughter, Anne can sense a spider in the vicinity even if tiny and an anxiety attack is sparked. The spider must be removed before she’ll settle in a room!
One of my first memories of coming to live in Australia as a nine-year-old was sitting at the kitchen table in the old weatherboard house our family rented in Croydon. I’m not certain if it was my Dad or an older brother who casually pointed above my head at the wall and said, ‘watch out for the spider.’
We were always playing tricks on each other, so I ignored the warning until I saw my sisters and younger brother hurry from the table. I turned around in time to see a huntsman the size of a saucer scurry across the wall. Needless to say, I slithered under the table and followed the others outside.
Ironically, we became immune to some of the spiders in the ‘old house’ to the extent that one lived above the old wood stove at my dad’s behest because it kept flies at bay. We nicknamed him Oscar.
However, Mum wasn’t as benevolent and didn’t shed a tear when Oscar disappeared up the vacuum cleaner one day!
Fifty-five years later I’ve encountered plenty of spiders – Red Backs along the fenceline and White Tails inside when we renovated.
Whitetail spiders frequently occupy Melbourne homes. They seek shelter in dark nooks and crevices and at night time they go about their business eating other spiders found lurking around the home. As they don’t spin a web to catch prey, when it comes time for them to rest, they sometimes find problematic places. Towels and toys left on the floor, curtains and bedsheets and lonesome shoes are a common hiding place. Whilst they are not vicious spiders, they will bite if feeling threatened. It’s easy to see how an unsuspecting human can quickly become the recipient of a painful venomous bite.
Common signs and symptoms of a Whitetail Spider bites include instant pain similar to a bee sting. There is redness, discomfort and swelling. Ulcerations can develop and the recipient is left open to the possibility of infection at the site. In a minority of victims, there is the potential to suffer a nasty reaction such as flue like symptoms and anaphylaxis.
While working in the garden I’ve often come across various garden varieties of spider, or rather they’ve come across me. Sometimes the bites require a visit to the doctor because of the rash or pain caused.
Like most people, I give spiders a wide berth when I can and not surprisingly they were a subject of my early poetry in Small Talk poems for children, Employ Publishing 1994.
Caring for the environment is an urgent task,
stop slaughtering wildlife, poisoning waterways,
and polluting the air – is all I ask.
I may respect the right of creatures
great and small
but this doesn’t mean a universal
love for all.
I live life with minimal environmental damage
I don’t buy toxic sprays or insecticides
and in the garden rampage.
Even revolting ‘blowies’, when inside
are swatted with a plastic hand
as effective deadly censure.
The one creature that has me terrified,
makes me absolutely petrified
if ever it manages to creep inside,
has eight legs and a body round
and in the most unlikely places found –
it can be small and brown, or big and black,
some can swing, some can jump…
all can crawl up your back!
‘Live and let live’ is all right in theory
but if you suffer arachnophobia
that sort of tolerance makes you teary.
I know nature is wonderful
I know nature is grand
but I’d love to be rid of ALL spiders
from this land!
The spider successfully annexed a set of four seats on the crowded peak-hour service, as well as two seats in the row behind that it might have been eyeing off for the extra legroom.
Funnel-web spider venom could provide stroke protection
The above headline relates to an article about research being done to prevent stroke victims from suffering brain damage.
One of Australia’s most fearsome spiders may provide the solution to protecting stroke victims from suffering brain damage.
Researchers at The University of Queensland and Monash University have found that a protein in the DNA of the funnel-web spider’s venom shuts down an ion channel known to malfunction in brain cells after strokes.
In cell experiments, the harmless chemical (called Hi1a) protected brain cells from a toxic flood of ions unleashed after a stroke strikes.
During a stroke, a blockage stops or slows the flow of blood to an area of the brain. The brain cells, suffering from a lack of blood and oxygen during a stroke then switch to metabolic pathways that don’t rely on oxygen. This creates a condition called acidosis and the oxygen-starved regions of the brain start to become damaged and die off.
Hi1a works by blocking the acid-sensing channels in the brain.
Who would have thought it? I might have to revise my opinion of that particular creepy crawly as the article states,
“Stroke is one of this country’s biggest killers and a leading cause of disability, striking someone in Australia every 10 minutes.“
I’ve also experienced Beetlemania
In December 2012, the Union of Australian Women Southern branch were having their annual Brunch for Peace at the Beach. The gathering is always held on Mordialloc foreshore and as usual as a coordinator and living in Mordialloc, I made my way down early to grab a spot under the shade.
Imagine my surprise to find the place swarming with bugs.
When I arrived, I discovered our usual shady area full of thousands of copulating beetles. Where is David Attenborough when I need him, I thought.
The other women arrived and we tried to ignore the busy insects but the breeding frenzy unsettling and hard to ignore. We tried to brush an area clear but didn’t want to be responsible for reducing some part of the ecosystem’s population. We gave up and moved elsewhere.
After some research, I discovered there were swarms of beetles in suburban gardens in and around Melbourne that summer, identified by scientists as Plague Soldier Beetles,Chauliognathus lugubris.
A native species, its common name refers to its habit of forming huge mating swarms. They can appear in such large numbers that it is not uncommon for them to weigh down the limbs of weaker plants.
Their bright colour warns off predators and they are capable of releasing distasteful chemicals and so would not make a good meal.
It was nice to know the beetles were not interested in harming humans –
not so another more recent encounter with the insect world.
When a Bee Turns Out to be A Wasp
During an afternoon working in the garden clearing overgrown vines from the fenceline, I noticed what I thought was half a dozen bees hovering near the corner of the house.
Later in the evening, when I went outside to bring in the washing I noticed the ‘bees’ were increasing in numbers and were going under the house, almost in a straight line. On closer inspection, I was pretty sure my bees were wasps.
A phone call to a local pest control company and their prompt response confirmed my fears were worse than I realised. The busy bees were European wasps and they had started to build a nest under the house!
Removal of the creepy-crawlies was completed by two men suitably attired with protective gear and spray guns full of a natural powdered essence that killed the wasps or put them into a stupor and drove them elsewhere.
Usually, the virus is contained to specific areas where the mosquitoes carrying the virus are found. None of the six cases had travelled to those areas.
According to Wikipedia diseases transmitted by mosquitoes also include: malaria, dengue, West Nile virus, chikungunya, yellow fever, filariasis, Japanese encephalitis, Saint Louis encephalitis, Western equine encephalitis, Eastern equine encephalitis, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, La Crosse encephalitis and Zika fever.
I remember the shock when a close friend from university, Jan Storr died from Murray Valley Encephalitis after a camping holiday. John knew this grief too because a young organiser in his Union died from the same disease.
A lot of grief from such a tiny insect…
Are insects taking over the world?
I’m not paranoid but I’ve never had a wasp invasion before and I’ve never seen so many spiders recently which makes me wonder have insect populations increased?
Urban Warming Drives Insect Pest Abundance on Street Trees
Our results provide the first evidence that heat can be a key driver of insect pest outbreaks on urban trees. Since urban warming is similar in magnitude to global warming predicted in the next 50 years, pest abundance on city trees may foreshadow widespread outbreaks as natural forests also grow warmer.
… we’re looking at a future full of tiny, deadly insects.
Though scale insects are harmless for humans and don’t conjure up the shivers the way cockroaches and mosquitos do, they might be far more harmful to the environment than these other apocalypse-loving pests. The main problem is that they attack trees, which are a crucial cornerstone of urban ecosystems.
On Quora the question was asked:
Why don’t insects who outnumber us greatly, take over the world?
What makes you think they haven’t?
If we exterminated all insects on this planet by whatever means we could invent, we would also doom ourselves.
We rely upon insects and other invertebrates to pollinate our food crops, if we didn’t have pollinators, we’d be dead.
When something dies, invertebrates clear up the corpse. Without them, we’d be living in a fetid mess of rotting corpses, dying from diseases that make mosquito-borne malaria look like fun.
We depend upon insects, even though they are not aware of it, they do rule the world, without them, we’re goners.
Somehow this rational answer isn’t that comforting – global warming could be driving an increase in more that tree insects.
As a writer with an overactive imagination, it’s the stuff horror movies are made of.
I remember Sunday School in Scotland and lustily singing praise to ‘all creatures great and small’ where the extent of interaction with insects was earwigs and bumblebees.
All Things Bright And Beautiful
Cecil F Alexander
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.
Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colours,
He made their tiny wings.
The purple-headed mountains,
The river running by,
The sunset and the morning
That brightens up the sky.
The cold wind in the winter,
The pleasant summer sun,
The ripe fruits in the garden,
He made them every one.
The tall trees in the greenwood,
The meadows where we play,
The rushes by the water,
To gather every day.
He gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell
How great is God Almighty,
Who has made all things well
I’m not sure the same praise applies living in Australia!
The Australian Museum in Sydney ranks Australia’s most dangerous animals based on the level of threat they pose, plus how likely you are to encounter one in the wild.
The honey bee is number 2 on the list and the funnel web spider is number 7!
The humble honey bee, which is not native to Australia, comes second on the list because it’s both common and deadly to small subset of people. Being stung by 100 or so honey bees could put anyone at risk of a fatality, but for those who are highly-allergic, even a single sting can be a life threatening situation.
The honey bee has barbed stings, so it can only sting once. The purpose of the sting is to make you never want to bother a bee ever again…
Since 1927, 14 deaths from the spider have been recorded. It’s only the male bite that has proved fatal, however.
Direct UV light will kill a funnel web, so the spiders need somewhere to hide during the day and have been known to consider a shoe a perfectly adequate location. More commonly, the spiders builds burrows under something like a pile of bricks or a log.
Whenever I go by public transport to visit my daughter Anne I pass a mural at Balaclava Station – large colourful and bright I think it represents the food chain – the insect is much too large for my liking –
Things are definitely not always bright and beautiful – do you agree?
My writing journey seems to be much like my life – unpredictable, a mystery, an uphill battle, full of sudden surprises and even miracles.
Some days there is a structure – usually my teaching days when I write with my students. Other days, there are scribbled notes, ideas and perhaps the start of a poem or story, or just an observation as I try and harness whatever fleeting thought an image, event or overheard word has prompted.
Recently, I’ve been troubled by an inability to write what and how I want, never finishing the stories or poems – not so much losing interest but struggling to find the joy and passion.
Sea-Sawing 1 Mairi Neil
When I walk by the sea, I am silenced
Not by roaring waves, tumultuous surf or crying rocks
When I walk by the sea, I am silenced
Not by the lapping wavelets or squelching sand
or the whispers of an ebbing tide.
When I walk by the sea, I am silenced
by the endless mystery of oceans
by this chameleon of colour and mood
by the changing horizon of merging sea and sky
by thoughts of the insignificance of humankind
and our attempts to tame, travel, and tease
and always the awesome sea can choose not to please
When I walk by the sea, I am silenced.
Pausing The Pen
As I prepare to go on what I am calling ‘long service leave’ (unpaid, unfortunately) from my writing classes, I’m hoping to rediscover my ‘mojo’ and enthusiasm for writing. I feel as stale and tired as my words as if I’m repeating myself and walking in circles.
Here’s hoping a term off, and weeks of new experiences as I travel the Trans-Siberian Railway and return to Scotland, my birth country to meet up with old friends and relatives, I’ll be able to reignite lost passion and enthusiasm.
Tracking My Journey To Recovery
I’ll use the blog as a sort of journal to track my journey – inner thoughts as well as the outward physical events. I’ll write about the same subjects I suppose but perhaps have a fresh angle – definitely a different perspective!
Entries may be written in the moment, fragments and random happenings recorded – a different process from how I usually write. I’m a planner and outliner when it comes to publication, a worrier about whether anything I write is worth reading or if there is a mistake with research, grammar, spelling…
I’ve been writing since a teenager and I love reading good writing – all I’ve ever wanted to do is be a writer that others want to read.
However, if I’m ever to achieve that dream and finish a couple of important writing projects then radical action is required. I’ll be 64 years old in August – a bit long in the tooth to be regarded as an emerging writer and entering the age bracket conscious that time can run out!
Now for Something Completely Different
It’s time to remove myself from the comfort zone of teaching writing and helping others on their publishing journey. Breda now looks after the Mordialloc Writers’ Group – relinquishing that was a major step for me to take because I founded the group over 21 years ago – but the freedom I feel with the cliched weight off my shoulders is wonderful.
I’m going to fulfil another item on the ‘bucket list’ made after I survived a breast cancer interlude. Hopefully, there will be a few more crossed off the list in the future.
On this Trans-Siberian trip, a teenage dream will be realised and I’ll pay homage to another favourite writer, Dostoevsky whose book Crime And Punishment, I regard as one of the top ten influences in my life. Like RLS and a few others, Dostoevsky gave me the desire to be a writer.
I’ll also be visiting the Orkney and Shetland islands, another long-held dream and the home of the wonderful writer and poet George Mackay-Brown.
Like Hillary Clinton – I aim high!
When I’m in holiday mode, perhaps I’ll rediscover the joy and spontaneity I’ve lost and succumb to the mystical process of mind linking together random observations, thoughts, dreams and sudden ideas into storylines and poems.
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
heartbeat slows, breathing even, steps linger,
imagination sparked as dreams awaken.
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
shells crunch underfoot, sand soft or solid,
seagulls whirl and twirl their aerial dance.
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
blueness stretches to meet blueness or
stormy grey prances with white caps,
the horizon a promise of somewhere else.
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
worries, fears, a bad day assuaged – this too will pass a mantra of healing and rebirth
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed.
Playfulness Is Not Out Of The Question
My first published poems were for children and I’ve always been attracted to manipulating words for fun. Perhaps my creative journey needs to return where it began!
I know poems don’t have to rhyme, in fact in some poetry circles it’s almost a criminal offence to write what they consider ‘doggerel’ aka anything with a rhyme. However, I love playing with words, love puns and absurdity.
I must go down to the sea today
to see the waves and splash
I must go into the sea today
salt water will cure my rash!
The sea has healing powers –
that’s what Mum told me
so, don’t take Nature for granted –
especially the magnificent sea.
You can play in the ocean,
swim, sail, and even water ski
it’s such a wonderful playground
so, always look after the sea.
Don’t pollute the water
home to creatures great and small
because if you listen carefully
you’ll hear the mermaids call…
Here’s to rejuvenation and a renewal of purpose or perhaps I’ll return from my journey and decide to knit and craft – reminders of a lovely period in my life when the girls attended a Steiner school and we immersed our lives in all things natural.
Time will tell.
… what we call the Creative Process is in no way limited to art or to individual acts of creating something. It is in fact, a large ongoing movement in our lives, a force that has its own will and its own purpose, and which we manifest on many levels but in definite sequences… a profoundly sacred process… visible in all aspects of my life…
In memory of my father who would be 95 today. He loved Paul Robeson and we played Ol’ Man River at Dad’s funeral. I grew up hearing stories about this wonderful man’s life, voice, and commitment to social justice.
This is a fantastic review by Lisa Hill – and here is the cover of one of the records I heard Dad play so often.
There have been some distractions on the domestic front chez moi, so this review may not do this marvellous book justice…
Jeff Sparrow’s biography of Paul Robeson is great reading, even if you have never heard of Paul Robeson. The blurb actually says that Robeson is one of the 20th century’s most accomplished but forgotten figures – but surely not? Could this voice really be forgotten?
His performance of ‘The Song of the Volga Boatman’ is electrifying:
But Paul Robeson, superstar of the early 20th century that he was, was not just an extraordinary bass singer. His father the Reverend William Drew Robeson had been a slave and he was ambitious for his son. He saw to it that Paul transcended the institutional racism all around him under the Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation in America until 1965. Paul became the third ever African-American student at Rutgers University, and he graduated with both academic…
Most people want a safe and attractive neighbourhood and will get up-in-arms if it is threatened – the NIMBY (not in my backyard) factor, yet their relationship with the local surrounds can often be like the adoration Sir Robert Menzies expressed for Queen Elizabeth 11 in the 1960s “I did but see her passing by and yet I love her till I die.”
In our community, most people travel by car. It’s easy to become disconnected from the immediate neighbourhood and cling to what you think is there.
Changes may go unnoticed until too late, validating the observation ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.’
Walk Your Neighbourhood, Know It, Own It!
While many places have been romanticised as wonderful places to hike or take a walk, I find my local area in Mordialloc just as beautiful as many mentioned in tourist brochures.
I don’t need to travel to walk by the sea along a wonderful foreshore, enjoy a park, or tour streets with well-kept and interesting gardens.
All of these attractions are within walking distance of my house, Mordialloc Railway Station or Mordialloc Main Street – and I’m sure there are similar attractions in suburbs all the way down to Frankston and onto the Peninsula, and up towards the city.
In my street, regardless of the season, council workers do a great job maintaining a lovely display outside a local hall where community groups like Kingston U3A meet regularly.
Although, it’s not always roses! Vigilance is needed to protect what we have and that’s why walking is important.
We can never assume things will remain the same – whether it’s the neighbourhood or our health – nothing should be taken for granted.
Melbourne is growing. Development is a huge issue with streetscapes changing rapidly as apartment blocks, town houses and units replace the traditional family home on a quarter acre block. The resulting increase in traffic and limited parking often the biggest issue people complain about.
The population is increasing, people need somewhere to live and will flock to desirable areas – especially places like Mordialloc in the south-eastern suburbs bordering Port Phillip Bay.
If councils don’t handle the transition and changes carefully and sensibly, the ambience and advantages people have moved to the area to enjoy will be lost. The natural beauty and good life people seek will disappear.
State Governments and Council Planning authorities are forever changing the rules about who can protest a development, or who needs to know, the height of buildings, the size of apartments etc.
Not everyone accesses the Internet or council websites so communication within a neighbourhood is vital.
Walking the neighbourhood benefits my mental and physical wellbeing but also keeps me aware of what is happening. If there is warning of inappropriate development I can write to my local councillor for an explanation or to protest. (and have done so.)
Sometimes it’s saving a heritage building, trees or vegetation, sometimes it’s reducing the number of apartments to be built or stopping overdevelopment.
Always it is prioritising the neighbourhood’s character and the effect on the people who live here or may want to live here in the future.
Walking Boosts Creativity
The creative effect of absorbing the beauty of the environment also worthwhile. I often walk with a friend. We consciously notice the trees and flowers in gardens, the activities at the foreshore, listen to the birds – are mindful of the places we walk….
I take my phone because of the camera. Taking pictures helps me remember and can prompt a poem or story later.
I’ve always walked – pushing my children in their strollers, walking them to school, taking the dog for an evening walk. The latter walk often a meditative exercise, alone with thoughts, working through worries and ideas, reflecting on the day.
For me, there is a synchronicity between walking and writing.
Some Women Writers Who Walked To Reflect & Be Inspired:
(I’ve chosen women in honour of IWD today!)
Virginia Woolf loved solitude and often walked. Perhaps it was genetic because her father, Leslie Stephens, a renowned writer and editor was also a notable walker and mountain climber.
In the biography of Woolf by her nephew, Quentin Bell, he says she’d write in the morning and in the afternoon go for long walks of several miles, usually with her dog.
Perhaps the walking enabled her to relax and solve any writing problems.
As a child Woolf summered in St Ives, the inspiration for “To A Lighthouse” in 1926, as she was revising the book, she returned, noting in a letter, ‘all my facts about lighthouses are wrong’.
Agatha Christie loved to walk and think – producing amazing results!
Jane Austen and her sisters took long walks together and the outings gave Jane inspiration to write.
Louisa Mae Alcott was a walker and her companion none other than great thinker Henry David Thoreau who wrote the aptly titled essay Walking. Walking through the natural world a pilgrimage without a destination where he discovered new places to adore.
Mary Oliver, the American poet born in Ohio in 1935, writes poignant observations of the natural world. Nature feeds creativity and Oliver, an avid walker finds inspiration when her feet are moving. Her poems are full of images that come from daily walks near her home.
Jane Goodall moved out of her comfort zone and trekked to places no one in the western world had gone before in her efforts to save the gorillas.
Cheryl Strayed trekked the Pacific Crest Trail and wrote Wild, which later became a movie.
Robyn Davidson trekked 1,700 miles across the Australian outback with four camels and a dog. She wrote Tracks about her epic journey, which was later made into a film.
Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas spent many summers in Bilignin, Ahône Valley 1929, at a villa surrounded by mountains. Stein strolled and wrote letters to Paris about her poodle, Basket – the first of three dogs she gave the name.
Merlin Coverley wrote The Art of Wandering,taking the view that walking and writing are one activity. His writer/walkers from the times of Blake, Wordsworth and Rousseau to modern day are concerned with their inner worlds, philosophy and spirituality.
The Twilight Zone
At night, just before I fall asleep
I sometimes ponder
on thoughts quite deep.
Why do we exist
and live on earth?
If there is no purpose
why do we give birth?
I can’t believe
some random explosion
put such a balanced world
in motion –
the worm, the fly, the elephant,
the platypus and parasite
interact with precision
like day and night.
The food cycle chain
and each environmental link
to really make you think
a clever creator’s hand
has been involved –
that Supreme Being’s identity
still to be solved.
Each religion I know believes
they alone have the answer
destruction wreaked by zealots
a malignant cancer
Allah, Buddah, Krishna, God,
Jesus, the sun, mankind, the trees
human beings worship
one or more, of these.
I have a yearning to know why I’m here
a reason for existing that is clear
I seek an answer to why
the world’s not one
why love and respect’s not mutual
just as we share the moon and the sun.
I’ve not discovered the answer
to explain why we’re here
but to ‘do no harm’ a message
we should all hold dear.
What is my destiny?
My reason for being?
My eyelids droop,
elusive sleep arrives
to stop me from ‘seeing’…
Walk Your Neighbourhood For a Healthy Body and Healthy Mind
Walking just 20 minutes a day can reduce your risk of premature death by 30%. About 30 minutes of walking a day burns 150 calories, which can help you reach a calorie deficit that leads to weight loss. Walking regulates blood sugar levels, which keeps insulin levels low and diabetes at bay.
A feeling of happiness and contentment can flow from recognising and appreciating where you live and regular walking is a great way to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. You’ll become leaner, firmer, and fitter.
Walking has always been meditative and calming, yet still invigorating to me. Bad moods can be marched out and life put in perspective.
It’s also a good way to rid yourself of anger – the suggestion ‘go for a walk’ or ‘walk it off’ good advice.
Anytime I need to work through a complex idea or problem, I walk or do something physical while I think.(Yep, even housework!)
Physical activity lets me ‘step aside’ and focus on the ‘real’ world while the thought process continues in the ‘virtual’ sub-conscious world where ideas/problems circulate.
The stresses of life walked out and tumultuous thoughts or emotions replaced by the sounds, smells, and sights of the sensory world of nature.
Keeping active and walking regularly not only helps maintain your weight, but lowers blood pressure, helps build healthy bones and muscles, and can improve “good” cholesterol.
The benefits aren’t just physical. Reports show that those who exercise regularly sleep better, have improved concentration and feel less stressed.
Life will be healthier and happier.
Towards the end of her life, when my mother visited and she couldn’t walk far, I’d hire a wheelchair from the chemist and take her for ‘walks’ around the neighbourhood.
We’d go down to the beach cafe and have a cuppa while I pointed out changes to the foreshore, or we’d discuss the changes to shops in Main Street since her last visit.
Perhaps in the future, my girls will be wheeling me in a wheelchair where once I wheeled them in a pram!
Walking isn’t just putting one foot in front of the other. It can be a way to socialise, to clear the brain, prevent mental breakdown, get healthier and extend life, solve – or ignore – problems, experience the world around in all its glory, beat insomnia and find a purpose.
Many of the most accomplished and creative people throughout history have also found walking to be an integral part of their daily routines and key to their success as artists, creators, writers, musicians, thinkers, and human beings.
The author, Charles Dickens, who suffered depression went for long walks. After writing from 9 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon, he’d walk – 20- or 30-miles being routine. He suffered insomnia and would prowl London’s streets until dawn. His friends worried, he walked obsessively but the habit worked! His prolific writing achievements of more than a dozen major and well-regarded novels, several short story collections, a few plays, and non-fiction books.
He said if he couldn’t walk “far and fast,” he would “explode and perish” from the psychological burden of remaining still. He found writing difficult and so walking was a relief. It probably saved his sanity.
His characters also do a lot of walking – perhaps he followed the mantra write what you know – a character in Our Mutual Friend, spends hours walking around London after dark, sometimes all night. Other characters walk from one town to another, which probably occurred in those days before motorised transportation.
Where you choose to walk can boost your sense of wellbeing. Strolls or hikes in the countryside, close to nature, can have a restorative effect at the end of a hectic working week but so can a walk around your neighbourhood.
Going for a stroll with a friend or family is a great way to spend time together while keeping active.
When you wander daily around your locale, you start to look at it properly and notice its devastating beauty. There’s the ‘naturally’ weird:
And the sweet:
the unusual or contrary (yes it is a rabbit he’s walking on a leash!):
There’s architectural loveliness, unusual plants, unfortunate graffiti and stylish landscaping.
A walk is NEVER boring. You don’t have to live next to the greatest park to experience the benefit of walking in the fresh air. Urban areas can give the same effect – there are always tiny local parks, laneways and byways to explore.
Walking is cheap and doable – you can even walk to music or listen to a book if you have headphones and an iPod.
Does walking figure in your life, help your creativity?
Where do you walk? Has it inspired poetry or prose?
A phrase frequently used by media commentators is “Canberra Bubble”, a disparaging reference to our elected representatives in federal parliament. It suggests they are disconnected from the rest of the population, not just by distance, but by reality.
When buzzwords are introduced into our everyday lexicon they’re often repeated without anyone challenging their accuracy, knowing what is actually meant, or if it is a reasonable description.
The phrase “Canberra Bubble” frequently used when federal politicians from both major parties seem more focused on leadership squabbles and factional alignments than policies to benefit the majority of the Australian population.
However, to be fair to federal politicians, they do put their hands up to enter parliament and the journey to winning an election and staying in power probably means like the most of us, they juggle several bubbles.
Question Google and you are taken to Quora and people from all over the world give you their meaning of ‘living in a bubble’.
Common themes are: isolating yourself, being shy or introverted, being naive, or the other extremes, being a victim or thinking you are superior!
Others suggest not caring and understanding, or forgetting what is happening in the ‘outside’ world, but the consensus is “living in a bubble means you do not get out of your comfort zone.”
We live in our own bubble most of the time
My main focus is immediate family (my daughters), extended family (siblings), close friends and neighbours, my students, and then various acquaintances who pop in and out of my life.
My bubble is usually pleasant. Life is enriching, experimental but safe, and most often full of joy. Reminiscent of playing with the lovely soap bubbles Mum made for us in childhood. (And I made for my children.)
Who can forget the excitement of dipping a twisted piece of wire into soapy water and blowing the thin film of soap water into the air?
Wonderful memories of competing to produce the largest bubble – and see how long it would last without popping.
Sometimes chasing the hollow spheres to catch them or hope they’d land gently on your hand; marvelling at the iridescent surface and kaleidoscopic colour as light wove its way in uneven waves and rainbows.
Into a place where in the past the term ‘ivory tower’in place of “bubble” has been used to disparage academia.
It is fashionable to sneer at elites with President Trump leading the charge but where would society be without the years of dedicated research and scholarship provided by academics?
The workshop I attended, a case in point, provided by the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the Graduate School of Humanities & Social Sciences for FREE!
This wonderful opportunity to improve skills and knowledge, professional development for me, as a teacher of writing and as a blogger. I took copious notes before the facilitators agreed to send copies of their slides, so I will share the information at a later date when the slides arrive and what I learned can be more accurately passed on.
(I always have difficulty deciphering my notes. Dad used to say, ‘a trained spider’ could write clearer than me.)
A Trip Down Memory Lane
The day was full of déjà vu because I worked as an Admin Officer for the Student Union for 4 years and was reminded of that fabulous time the moment I stepped on campus through Gate 10.
I recall fighting back tears as someone who had been at the Aboriginal Embassy in the 1970s. Tried to imagine how important this recognition of our blemished and brutal past would be to those directly affected. Another crucial step towards true reconciliation with our First People.
The student union changed its name to UMSU and rebranded while I was there in the mid-2000s. (There had been a turbulent history before that and the aftermath made for an interesting settling in period for me.)
Two seagulls pecked at the edges of a water feature, their obesity evidence of rich pickings on a campus with plenty of eateries and picnic areas to mine. I paused and watched the birds. The campus silent and empty of the usual hordes of students. Memories crowded and years of absence fell away. My feet automatically strode towards Arts West.
Melbourne University has one of the most attractive campuses in Australia, rich in history. The buildings maintained and modernised with deference to heritage and character.
I discovered another new addition, bronze plaques commemorating academics and professional staff who have made an outstanding and enduring contribution to the University community. These awarded and embedded in 2014 along the Professor’s Walk. I took a couple snapshots to remind myself to return one day and do the Historic Campus Tour.
There is also a new cafe – always a welcome addition for hungry students without culinary skills and just learning to live independently!
Before the workshop started I raced along to Union House to grab a much-needed coffee. Wow – more memories – I remembered the voices of angry students protesting PM John Howard’s introduction of voluntary union contributions in an attempt to silence radicals and destroy the power of collective bargaining.
Unfortunately, it meant the destruction of a lot of clubs and societies on campus funded by union dues – activities that made campus life worthwhile and memorable. That was a long hard fight and the first time I’d heard of Barnaby Joyce, the current leader of the National Party.
I typed up his telephone interview with the editors of Farrago, the student newspaper – Barnaby was against VSU because he knew it would disadvantage country campuses.
Who Works Early On Saturday Morning At A University?
A cheerful man asks me, ‘What can I do you for?’
‘Flat white coffee, please?’
‘Salt and pepper, tomato sauce, a dash of engine oil?’
We laugh in unison.
‘Oh, a dash of whisky – it’ll wake me up. My grandfather called it his heart starter.’
He turns to his mate at the coffee machine with a grin as wide as the ocean.
‘I like this woman,’ then as he took my money,’You’ve made my day. I’m going to share that story. Great excuse!’
Another lady standing beside me waits for her coffee. We introduce ourselves – yes, on an almost empty campus early Saturday morning, we are going to the same place.
Sandra and I both grateful these cheery blokes have their coffee machine fired up. We agree hospitality workers deserve penalty rates!
And so do the academics, administration staff and security waiting for us…
We Were Warned – The Workshop Starts On Time!
In the lecture theatre, I hurriedly sit beside Marilyn, a retired BBC radio producer who has joined her son to live in Melbourne.
We share many stories throughout the day, lunch at the refurbished cafes in the Royal Melbourne Hospital precinct where I hear about her groundbreaking and controversial documentary for Amnesty’s 50th Anniversary, a segment for Stephen Fry on Aussie English and her involvement in U3A where she has organised a booked out talk by Don Watson of Weasel Words fame.
What a coup!
On my other side, I whisper hello to Lucy who writes for australianlighthouses.com. A labour of love. She confides to giving up a well-paid job in the public service to become a freelance writer. She’s already had successes with travel articles for The Age: where to eat in Paris and a feature on taking her son to Japan.
To say, I felt decidedly out of my journalistic and freelancing depth, is an understatement, but we were attending to learn from experts with even more incredible pedigrees of journalism, editing and publishing:
Dr Margaret Simons
Dr Denis Muller
The subjects covered were:
The Pitch – how to write a succinct attractive pitch to hook editors
Interview skills – how to prepare, conduct and write a great interview
Law and Ethics – common pitfalls and risks to finances (defamation), credibility and peace of mind
Structure – how to construct a standard 1000 word piece for publication
The sessions packed with information that the hundreds who attended absorbed. The questions and detailed answers covered almost everything you could think of in the field of journalism.
The information I found most fascinating, and which generated a debate afterwards over networking coffee in the foyer, was Dr Denis Muller’s lecture on ethics, or lack thereof when people chase a story regardless of the law and common decency.
Dr Muller is a leading Australian ethicist and has written Journalism Ethics for the Digital Age, Scribe 2013 and Media Ethics and Disasters: Lessons from the Black Saturday Bushfires, Melbourne University Press. 2011
He mentioned in passing that the DPP in Victoria sent a letter to all media outlets in Melbourne the day after the terrible tragedy in Bourke Street, warning them to be careful not to jeopardise the trial and conviction of the accused and be guilty of Contempt of Court.
We have the history in Victoria where a paedophile priest was given a lesser sentence because radio broadcaster and now Senator Derryn Hinch went public with information that jeopardised the accused’s right to a fair trial. He was charged with contempt again over another case.
Fortunately, the majority of journalists take the law and ethics more seriously.
I farewelled my newfound friends and walked slowly back to the tram stop in Swanston Street to head home. The pleasant walk a respite from the less than comfortable chair and the brain food to be digested.
Writing fodder abounded – but more for my inner creative writer!
A wedding party was having photographs. A beautiful visual feast and fun to watch as the photographers tried to be creative with poses.
I admired and took a closer look at a couple of sculptures. There are major works by 23 sculptors dotted around the campus, spanning centuries and countries. Many were gifted for safe keeping.
James Gilbert was born in Dublin and immigrated to Victoria in 1854. This fine example of Gilbert’s work, Atlantes was originally sited in Melbourne’s central business district. In Greek mythology, the giant Atlas supported the sky. Architecturally, Atlantes are male figures or half-figures used in place of columns to support a porch-like structure and are frequently portrayed straining under an enormous weight.
This pair originally formed part of the ornate arched entrance to the Colonial Bank of Australasia on the corner of Elizabeth and Little Collins Streets in the 1880s, and remained there until the building’s demolition in 1932.
Atlantes was salvaged and presented to the university where it was re-erected to form the porch of the Old Physiology building, which in 1970 was also demolished. Atlantes has been in its current location since 1972 and is classified by the National Trust of Australia (Victoria)
Untitled (Charity being kind to the poor) c.1893
Designed by Austrian artist Victor Tilgner and cast at the Imperial Art Foundry of Vienna, by sculptor Edward W Raht, (Charity being kind to the poor) originally adorned one of Melbourne’s landmark buildings—the massive seven-storey Equitable Life Assurance Society Limited headquarters on the corner of Collins and Elizabeth Streets.
Mounted on the red granite portico, the bronze statue was considered ‘the crowning piece’ of the ornate structure. It symbolised the themes of protection and shelter, typical of sculpture commissioned by insurance companies to adorn their corporate buildings at the time.
Although structurally sound, by the late 1950s the building was considered uneconomical and was demolished. (Charity being kind to the poor) was presented to the University of Melbourne in 1959 by the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society Limited who had purchased the building in 1923.
This memorial, of Stawell stone, was built in 1926 to honour those in the University who served or died in World War 1. It originally stood at the head of the main drive but was relocated at the angle of the Law School and Wilson Hall.
I discovered a series of plaques to commemorate WWI and other conflicts, placed in 2014 beside the University’s war memorial. Perhaps funded by the Gallipoli Centenary Fund, in a similar way to Williamstown Council and their website featuring men, including my uncle, who joined up and died on active service.
I hope people take the time to read them.
On a brighter note, I also discovered another innovation since I left, a Community Garden.
A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.
This quiet oasis a delightful discovery amongst concrete buildings.
grow food as sustainably and organically as possible
inspire people to grow their own food
provide a place for learning about healthy food
show an alternative to how public space can be used
create a strong sense of community here at Melbourne University
A fantastic concept, which is flourishing.
Green relief in grey claustrophobia. The list of plants varied: Granny Smith Apples, rhubarb, pumpkin, various herbs, orange pippin, chocolate lily, native viola, Mydyim berry, and yams.
And from the practical to the ornamental – rows of gorgeous crepe myrtles in their spectacular colourful glory line the path on the way out of campus.
Just the other day, one of my students (88-year-old Edna) told the story of going out in a recent storm with hammer, nails and string to rescue a baby crepe myrtle that had just started to flower and had been flattened in the wind.
The crepe myrtle flowers are wonderful – each petal is like crepe paper, wrinkly and crinkly, and that’s where it gets its name. They can be grown as a standard, a miniature, a low-growing spreading plant, a small shrub, a small tree and even a large tree.
Look at their beauty – they are worth rescuing!
Crepe myrtles flourish in Australia. They like a hot and dry climate and transplant well from a pot. Established with plenty of water, to ensure the root system develops, they are remarkably drought-tolerant. All varieties provide striking colour in summer, wonderful autumn foliage and in winter have beautiful, ornate bark.
These are all newly planted since I worked at the university.
Finally, I pass large tubs grouped in the definitive and positive ‘rule of three’ and recall poems I wrote years ago when I travelled into the city daily, being very much a part of the “university bubble” – or should that be “ivory tower”?
Shadows Mairi Neil
The plaintive song echoes
in the university grounds
as students hurry home
past skeletal branches
of winter trees
hosting the bird’s lament
of dinosaur dynasties
amid the whirr of bicycle wheels,
wistful whistles announce dusk
become full-throated celebrations
melodious calls to rest
as lights douse,
classroom doors close,
and the campus empties
crowded trams trundle by
bathed in artificial sunlight
tall grey buildings reach
for a star embroidered sky
this call of birded tongue
of long forgotten species.
Melbourne Central, July 2007 Mairi Neil
Woollen scarf as fashion dictates
the student holds a radical newspaper aloft
bold black print and strident voice
denouncing government indifference
Business suits brush by
polished leather squeaks
the train home awaits
high heels click
trails of perfume dissipate
the train home awaits
From the shadows a bundle of rags
morphs into a man
murmurs drowned by
social justice warriors
his trembling hand and
cardboard begging sign ignored
Another day in Melbourne
polystyrene cup left empty
a mirror of society…
Do you live in a bubble? Perhaps burst or blow bubbles…
Who said the more things change, the more they stay the same?
Hidden Figures celebrates the African-American women whose calculations enabled the Moon landings, and were then forgotten for 40 years. All profits from the event go to Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equality (URGE), an organisation led by women of colour that fights for reproductive justice in poor, and particularly black, communities. It is on the front line of the struggle against Trump. This is the first of hopefully many events to raise funds for those resisting the right-wing tide.
The event raised $1500 – a great achievement because it was organised at short notice and solely through social media. It didn’t take long to fill the cinema.
NASA’s “Colored Computers”
Hidden Figures is entertaining, empowering, and an all round excellent film. And as most of the advertising hype suggests, it is a story long overdue in the telling, focusing on the journey of three clever women: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.
I consider myself well-read and I have a double history major, yet I never knew about the “colored computers” as they were referred to by NASA.
Before IBM mainframes took over NASA’s number-crunching duties, the organization’s “computers” wore skirts. While an all-male team of engineers performed the calculations for potential space travel, women mathematicians checked their work, playing a vital role at a moment when the United States was neck-and-neck with (and for a time, running behind) the Soviets in the space race.
In tandem with the space race between America and Russia is the burgeoning and increasingly effective civil rights movement. Clips from real life news broadcasts and newspaper headlines are shown and there is some re-enactment of protests, but the film’s focus is detailing the achievements of three women who were crucial to the success of NASA’s program. They also trail-blazed for not only African-American rights but rights for all women to be treated as intelligent as their male counterparts.
The Evils of Segregation
The film, set in the early 1960s shows the struggle for desegregation being fought state by state. Like Apartheid South Africa, coloured people are barred, separated, and herded by the predominant white authorities:
coloured drinking fountains,
coloured waiting rooms,
coloured counters in cafes and shops,
and of course coloured seats at the back of the bus despite the brave actions of Rosa Parkes.
This segregation appalling when seen on the screen, especially regarding the effect on innocent children. It’s almost impossible to understand what it must have been like – and it is not that long ago!
Thank goodness we have films like Hidden Figures and Selmato remind us of our common humanity and the evils of bigotry and hate.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
At NASA’s Langley, in the 1940s and 1950s, the women were split into two pools – the East computing unit for white women, and the West computing unit for black women. This segregation a requirement of Virginia state law that continued into the 1960s.
NASA at least recognised the ability of women to work in the field, but in 1962 the “colored computers” were not afforded the same rights or treated with the same respect as their white male colleagues.
The detailing of overt and ingrained racism some of the most powerful and poignant scenes in the movie. Although the focus is always on the contribution and efforts to achieve a successful launch into space, the three women challenge and defeat prejudice and unfairness in the workplace.
Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, was the first black supervisor in charge of West Computing and is one of the main characters in the film. One of the first computer programmers when tasks from the engineers came in, she would allocate the work and show her team what they needed to do. Her ingenuity and intelligence and determination to be ahead of the game and yet protect her team, absolutely awesome.
She often goes toe to toe with her white manager, Vivian played to condescending perfection by Kirsten Dunst who has a face you itch to slap. As a woman, Vivian recognises discrimination yet refuses to accept her own attitude and behaviour as racist, not supporting Dorothy’s right to the title and pay of supervisor and saying such lines as:
“Y’all should be thankful you have jobs at all”
Katherine Johnson played in the film by Taraji P. Henson, was a brilliant geometry expert who worked as a human computer – a person who computes – she was a child prodigy and calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space.
In the film, there is also a scene where astronaut John Glenn asks for Katherine to check the calculations for returning safely to earth before he gets into the spacecraft.
NASA’s chief historian, Bill Barry, explains that the film, which has been nominated for a slew of awards, depicts many real events from their lives. “One thing we’re frequently asked,” he says, “is whether or not John Glenn actually asked for Katherine Johnson to ‘check the numbers.'” The answer is yes: Glenn, the first American in orbit and later, at the age of 77, the oldest man in space, really did ask for Johnson to manually check calculations generated by IBM 7090 computers (the electronic kind) churning out numbers at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
Though the film shows Glenn asking for Johnson’s approval from the launch pad, she was actually called in well before the launch. Calculating the output for 11 different variables to eight significant digits took a day and a half. Her calculations matched the computer’s results exactly. Not only did her conclusions give Glenn and everyone else confidence in the upcoming launch, but they also proved the critical computer software was reliable.
When she is transferred into the all white domain in the West Computing Wing the tension and underlying resentment from one male worker, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons plays the stereotypical subdued white collar racist to perfection) is palpable. It is the scenes in the operational room before and during the space launches that provide the most tension in the movie.
Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, was a mathematician and aerospace engineer. She petitions a judge to let her take the necessary night courses in the all-white high school that will allow her to apply for an open engineering position at NASA.
Hidden Figures is based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly: Hidden Figures, The Untold Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, a TIME magazine top 10 nonfiction book of 2016.
We’ve had astronauts, we’ve had engineers—John Glenn, Gene Kranz, Chris Kraft. Those guys have all told their stories. Now it’s the women’s turn.
Margot Lee Shetterly
There is plenty of humour in the film as well as a great soundtrack. The fashions – from beehive 60s hairdos to colourful and impractical stilettos and skirts and cardigans detailed to perfection to brighten the sets. There are classic gas guzzling cars too.
Real footage of the times from speeches by JFK, shots of Dr Martin Luthor King Jr, and scenes of space launch successes and disasters all used to good effect in the film.
Sputnik 1 was launched on October 4, 1957, beating the United States and stunning people all over the world.
October 4, 1957, First artificial satellite – First signals from space Sputnik 1
November 3, 1957, First dog in orbit ( Laika) Sputnik 2
April 12, 1961, First human spaceflight (Yuri Gagarin)
The footage of the Russian efforts as reported by world news reminded me of my Dad singing a ditty about Yuri Gargarin. Britain wasn’t that involved with the space race and so the Russian success was probably looked upon with more admiration on Scotland’s side of the Atlantic!
Oh dear, Yuri Gagarin,
He flew tae the moon when it looked like a farthing,
He said tae the boys at the moment of parting
“Ah’m juist gaun away for the Fair”
Now inside the ship he lay down like a hero,
The doors were sealed up and the countdown was near-o
An Yuri went up in the air
Now when he took off he was shook tae the marra
He circled the poles and he saw the Sahara,
He gave them a wave as he passed over Barra
The day he went up in the air
Now when he went up it was just aboot dawning,
The time when the rest of the world wis still yawning
Then Yuri returned to the land he wis born in
Withoot even turning a hair
When he came tae London they tried the saft pedal,
A wee bowler hat and a rolled-up umbreddle
But the foundrymen went an’ they struck him a medal
An gied it tae him at the fair
This song is in praise of the first man to go into space and orbit the earth, the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, on 12th April 1961.
The song was written in the vernacular by Glasgow actor and writer Roddy McMillan to the tune of ‘Johnny’s So Long At The Fair’ and has been published in a collection of traditional and new Scots songs as a resource for primary schools, Gallus PublishingGreat Britain, 2013.
Praise Long Overdue
Hidden Figures acknowledges the commitment of all those involved in the pioneer space program, including for the first time the contributions of the African-American mathematicians, engineers and computing experts.
Poetic licence sees the sequence of real events compressed and Kevin Costner plays the head of the Space Task group with dramatic flair, along with his crewcut, conservative collar and tie, and constant gum chewing; he’s a man of the times.
This is an important movie and it will trigger many memories for baby boomers – most of us were sent home from school in 1969 to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. In many of my writing classes that day looms large in memory but I guarantee no one knew about the amazing Hidden Figures.
I hope you enjoy the film as much as I did. I’ll leave you with an apt quote from the first man to go into space…