There is no greater thrill for a teacher of creative writing than to see the joy on a student’s face when they hold in their hands, the book they have written.
When that student has put years of effort into making the dream a reality and overcome health problems, the moment even sweeter.
Yesterday, I met up with some past students of my Life Stories & Legacies class that ran from February 2014 – December 2018, at Godfrey Street Community House in Bentleigh. We gathered in Sandringham to celebrate with Edna Gaffney the publication of her memoir, Chibby From Brandy Creek.
The Life Stories class at Godfrey Street, one of the most cohesive, supportive and friendliest classes in my 20 plus years of teaching, which has included four community houses. Several of the students still meet monthly and email or phone each other regularly.
Edna is the second to publish a memoir, another student will have one out for Christmas and another perhaps in the New Year. A great bunch of writers dedicated to their purpose of leaving a legacy for family and friends. They have all led amazing lives spanning decades.
Edna was in her mid-eighties when she came to my class with a determination to write a book about her mother, family life in Gippsland between the wars, and also her own life as a nurse, particularly, as one of the first nurses to be trained at Cabrini Hospital to care for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
In her Dedication, Edna wrote:
These efforts to record memories, I dedicate to my family and future generations. I wanted to describe my early life living in Gippsland, rural Victoria, and to honour my mother. Our family experienced a lifestyle and events different to many others and to the expectations of people today.
Miracles can occur in most families, maybe not suddenly, but over time, and I consider the eventual reunion of my siblings after the death of our mother, a miracle. Six siblings were adopted during 1943-44 and the family split up, yet we eventually reunited as adults and became a family once again. I am writing down some details of our early life for those siblings who have no memories of our natural mother.
I also record my own experiences of family and career. Change of attitude, much-needed patience and endurance to cope and care for others, are some of the qualities I learned in my working and family life – becoming a parent a profound change. My chosen profession of Nursing has altered dramatically since I began Mothercraft Nursing at the Berry Street Babies’ Home in 1947.
A Powerful Story Shared
When Edna enrolled in 2014, like many older students, she had no computer skills and in fact, no computer. However, after absorbing what it means to be a writer in the modern world, Edna enrolled in computer classes at the Community House and bought a laptop.
I don’t think she’d mind me saying that her success in writing this book was not replicated in the computer class! Wisely, she concentrated on the writing and saved money and time by allowing her daughters and me help with typing. I have no idea what happened to the laptop except it was often threatened and may indeed have been ‘chucked out the window’.
Edna’s daughter, Jane-Maree arranged the launch yesterday and was a driving force in the final stages of the project as her mother’s health deteriorated. We were determined the book would be published before Edna’s 90th birthday on July 2, 2019, and made the deadline.
However, the actual launch delayed while Edna settled into a nursing home – a disruptive, often devastating, and certainly time-consuming challenge for everyone concerned.
Fortunately, Edna likes her new home and Jane-Maree said, ‘they were great’ providing the comfortable space for the celebration.
The Journey To Publication
Over the years, I published five of the nine anthologies for the Mordialloc Writer’s Group. Along the way I threw myself into lifelong learning, grappling with InDesign, attending workshops on desktop and digital publishing, reading books, online articles, trawling websites and information from email lists, and watching webinars to keep up with the rapid changes in the writing and publishing industry.
It is a privilege to share those skills with writing students and to be trusted with their precious words when they decide to publish. I know there are some disastrous self-publishing efforts and looking back at my early efforts, improvements can certainly be made, but I have become a small press publisher by accident and will continue to learn on the job.
Software and hardware capabilities and printing options have radically changed in a few short years. The cost, which has a big impact on choice has changed too – you get a bigger, better bang for your buck nowadays!
The aim of most writers is to be published – not necessarily a novel, memoir, or poetry book, but perhaps simply a short story or poem that begged to be written, or a slice of family history or an anecdote so memorable, it must be committed to print. (I prefer printed books.)
Some students come to class with a definite project in mind. They have a dream to publish a book with a target audience of friends and family.
Not everyone aims to have a book in Readings or become rich and famous with a bestseller or win a prize.
Not everyone wants to monetize (how I hate this buzz word) their talent or creativity.
Most want to write and publish for the joy and satisfaction of telling a story/stories and being able to share their writing with others who will read and appreciate their words. They desire to write or would feel strange not writing, perhaps love being a wordsmith.
When you believe in yourself and writing, being published is a realistic achievable dream.
Edna had a powerful story to tell and I gladly helped with advice and editing. My talented daughter, Mary Jane designed the cover, as she has done for several book ventures. (A reluctant book cover designer, she doesn’t refuse to help her mum.)
The class gave Edna feedback and encouragement and through this collective effort, a beautiful and readable book was offered free of charge yesterday with an option to donate to Berry Street Babies Home. (most people did!)
When you read Edna’s book you understand her strong commitment to Berry Street, where she trained as a Mothercraft Nurse, but also the deeply emotional link because of family circumstances.
Books for Purpose Not Profit
This is the third book I’ve produced whereby the writer has donated all or most of the profit because of their commitment to a cause or appreciation of events or people. There was no profit involved with Mordialloc Writers’ anthologies either, with any money from sales going towards the publication of the next book.
When Mordialloc Writers’ Group folded in 2018, I donated group funds to Mordialloc Beach Primary School to create a scholarship and encourage creative writing. The Principal, Sue Leighton-Janse suggested the money provide ongoing writing awards for Junior, Middle and Senior school, in the name of MWG. I only hope this happens.
You can read about Julie Wentworth: A Life Sharedhere. Julie, a teacher of Yoga, mentor and spiritual guide, donated the sale of her books to an orphanage in Africa caring for children with HIV.
Mary Jane and I had the privilege of working with Peter Hocking, who wrote about his recovery from a stroke and sold books to support The Stroke Foundation.
I’m sure writing and publishing is often a labour of love, and if articles discussing the state of publishing in Australia are to be believed, poetry books, even traditionally published, seldom make a profit with publishing houses using the sales from more popular books to counter-balance the low-profit margin in some literary genres.
Another book I worked on this year was a huge labour of love for a woman who wanted to celebrate her 70th birthday by publishing travel diaries kept by her parents on their first overseas trip in the 1970s.
Ruth inherited the handwritten exercise books, 500 slides and meticulously detailed itinerary notes and letters home. What to do with this material so that her brothers and sisters, her children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren will enjoy the old school and very personal travelogue?
She had a friend type the 55,000 words, paid to digitise then print the slides, and commissioned a nephew to draw maps of the route her parents travelled through continents and several countries, to introduce the three separate parts of their trip.
Ruth only printed 25 of this A4 landscape book, which I edited and published. Muriel and Len’s observations were side by side and Mary Jane chose 100 of the best photographs. Mary Jane created Ruth’s vision for the cover using Muriel and Len’s passport photos, the best close-up photographs Ruth possessed.
Not every book needs a launch or a large audience. Often writers can cover their costs and break-even. Family members may contribute or if written for a target audience (sporting/hobby club, regional or historical relevance) writers may make a small profit by self-publishing.
Writers keep control and have important input to the content, cover and cost of their book every step of the way from conception to birth if they self-publish.
It’s an exciting and worthwhile journey – not always smooth – but as John Denver sings in one of my favourite songs, ‘some days are diamonds, some days are stone,‘ and yesterday for Edna, her family and friends was a diamond day.
Well done Edna and thank you for allowing me to be a part of your dream!
I’ve taken a long time framing this post because of recent events and the adversarial way many parts of the media cover topics such as religion, refugees, and immigration and the resultant ire, ignorance and irritation that inevitably results, particularly on social media.
Ignorance is a keyword here – if more people moved out of their comfort zone and made the effort to learn, mix, communicate and appreciate each other’s contributions to the tapestry of society a lot of angst and misinformation could be avoided.
We are lucky living in Melbourne because there are myriad opportunities to access and enjoy what a multicultural community offers. We can live together in peace and mutual respect aware of each other’s contributions.
I’ve attended two enriching events recently, provided by the Kingston Interfaith Network to appreciate the diversity of our community.
It’s heartening to know there are people actively working to breakdown barriers and challenge bigotry and I’d recommend the annual bus trip the Network organises to visit various places of worship.
Religion & Politics Can be Discussed With Civility
Along with many baby boomers, I grew up with family traditions of attending Sunday School and church but it never translated as ‘blind faith’.
Both parents were immersed in church life in Scotland; they continued this involvement in Croydon when we migrated. I drifted away from organised religion in my teens and only returned to be part of a community as a young mother, to eventually drift away again.
None of us chooses the country, culture or community we are born into and the idea that there is a ‘true’ religion or ‘master’ race seems ludicrous and irrational.
I’m grateful for access to education and several fine teachers at high school and university, to have continued that education by travelling, accessing wonderful books, films, and essays and appreciating the contribution of others to a pool of general knowledge more easily available now through the worldwide web.
I know I’m not alone among my peers questioning human existence, our relationship to the natural world and seeking meaning to life – a journey that will end one day and that day is getting closer –
I recall the pithy words of a good friend, ‘We all die and one day we’ll discover whether there is a God or life after death!‘
In the meantime, I intend to enjoy the journey, learning something new every day, look for the joy because focusing on social injustice and world conflicts convinces me we are stuck in Groundhog Day! (“a situation in which events are or appear to be continually repeated” )
John Lennon’s Imagine is often played to a compilation of visuals – technology leaves nothing hidden! We see the horrific death toll of the two world wars, the partition of India and Pakistan, the euphemistic ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, the Vietnam War, the Biafran/Nigerian War, the Middle East, Idi Amin’s Uganda … oh, how Lennon’s lines resonate with generation after generation …
Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try. No hell below us, Above us only sky… Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too…
There is never a shortage of up-to-the-minute footage of conflicts – the world seems to produce tragedies at an alarming rate. For many people, their religious beliefs and being part of a community helps to make sense or at least alleviate some of the fear and pain.
A meme doing the rounds of Facebook also strikes a chord –
Many Beliefs One Community
The Kingston Interfaith Network ‘celebrates the commonality and diversity of our spiritual communities’.
encourage understanding and respect between people of all faiths and cultures
affirm spiritual and religious freedom
work towards peace, compassion and equality within our local community
In my writing classes, we have some wonderful discussions while sharing knowledge regarding human needs, the importance of belief systems and what form these may take whether philosophical or religious.
Discussion, reflection and sharing information and experiences important for writers to understand and create characters regardless of the genre but also for citizens when we have the current Australian Parliament discussing the introduction of religious freedom legislation.
Since 9/11, the constant stirring of fear and misinformation about Islam looms large.
The Royal Commission into Abuse of Children in religious and other institutions with many still quibbling about compensation to victims has shattered the trust and appeal of several churches, especially the Catholic Church.
Stories about cults or gurus ripping off or abusing vulnerable people are rarely out of the news.
The Israel Folau controversy started a debate about freedom of speech in the context of workplace contracts and religious beliefs.
Any Interfaith Network has its work cut out!
In Kingston, the Network engages with the community by being involved in:
Learning and Education
Community consultations and representation
I worked for the Uniting Church, Hotham Parish until daughter, Anne was born in 1986 and was fortunate to work with Rev. John Rickard who was a strong believer in ecumenicalism and social justice. A pharmacist before ‘getting the call’, he was a great boss – understanding, compassionate and down-to-earth.
I saw the church from a different perspective. Working closely with Hanover Welfare, the church raised money and provided services to people in need in the community, they also owned houses in Curzon Street and ran a kindergarten. ‘The church’ can be a landlord, employer, business entrepreneur, owner of private hospitals and schools. Practicalities to be dealt with that many don’t associate with theologians.
Another learning curve occurred in 2004 when I was commissioned to write the history of St Aidan’s Church and subsequently published The Little Church On The Hill for their Centenary.
The Chelsea/Carrum Anglican community influential in developing and providing youth services, fellowship groups for women, raising money for much needed social services and encouraging the arts but there were internal conflicts, debates about policies and implementation, and adapting to a world where Sunday was no longer sacrosanct.
Talking about the Christian faith my comfort zone but I still treasure a necklace made from a leather strip with the tooth of a moose blessed by an elderly Iroquois Indian when I visited their village in Montreal, Canada 1976. She wanted me to be safe on my travels.
World Book Day 2019
Kingston’s World Book Day was hosted in conjunction with Kingston Council’s Interfaith Committee, established by Council to provide a conduit between Kingston Council and the faith communities within local areas to encourage open communication, interfaith dialogue and partnerships and to address the needs of the local communities.
World Book Day theme for 2019 was Interfaith in the Libraries. Kingston’s Interfaith Committee chose to deliver a book donations event to Kingston Libraries to further support an interfaith dialogue within the community.
Invited to write religious affiliation, I wrote Humanitarian. Nobody baulked at the label, with some attendees commenting they wished they had written that rather than nominating a religion or leaving it blank.
A warm welcome epitomised the evening with many groups taking the opportunity to display the books attached to their Faith and donate them to the library. The buzz of conversations filled the room, people browsed the books and I met acquaintances from past involvement with community groups and Mordialloc Writers’.
There were printed sheets from a variety of religious groups within the Network summarising their core beliefs, sacred texts and laws, places of worship, branches, practices and festivals, origin story, morals and ethics… in no particular order here are the sheets I picked up:
The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) (aka the Hare Krishna Movement)
Catholic Church (Christian)
ECKANKAR (This means Co-worker with God -founded 1965, main temple Minnesota USA
Sufi works and practices: The Whirling Dervishes, the poetry of Rumi, the works of Ib Arabi…
Zee Cheng Khor Moral uplifting Society Inc (known as DEJIAO in Chinese)
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons)
My knowledge of some of these groups minimal – and to know they worshipped in Kingston and felt welcome at the event is a testament to the religious freedom we already enjoy. (Note to Federal Government don’t fix what’s not broken!)
Fast forward to the annual bus tour I joined recently…
A Journey of Discovery
Kingston Interfaith Committee runs a bus tour once a year to places of worship to provide an opportunity for the public to learn about different faiths. Tour participants see different places of worship and ask questions in a respectful and supportive small group environment. There is no cost and a light lunch is offered by the Council.
I have been wanting to go on this tour for many years but work or other commitments meant I missed out. I was thrilled to join the 23 other participants (some followed the community bus in their own cars) on August 7, leaving from the Council Offices at Mentone.
Guided by Elisabetta Robecchi, Community Development Officer, Social Development, we visited four places of worship. There were people from Glen Eira and Casey communities. The only person with an outward sign of religious affiliation was a Sikh gentleman from Monash who told me most councils have these tours with some providing several a year. He had been on a few tours and generously shared his knowledge.
The places visited change each time so it wasn’t surprising to find some people had toured before, but most were first-timers like me – and what an eclectic group we were!
Elisabetta shared the two group photos taken at a mosque and Orthodox church.
We set off a bit late because of the difficulties of participants finding all-day parking – so for future reference:
use public transport like me, or plan ahead as to where you will park in Mentone and prepare for a walk to the meeting point!
Also, wear comfortable and easily divested footwear – most places you visit require removal of shoes.
Plus slip in a headscarf or make sure your jacket/coat has a hood for the places requiring women to cover their head.
Masjid Westall, Indonesian Muslim Community Cultural Centre, Clayton South
Lunch at Westall Hub
St George Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, Heatherton
Turkish Islamic and Cultural Centre, Keysborough
Shri Shiva Vishnu Temple
Hinduism is one of the oldest surviving religions in the world, with an unbroken succession of seers and teachers. It is practised by millions of people living in the vast subcontinent of India and in many other places where Indian migrants have settled, including Australia.
And although it is an ancient religion it continues to evolve and form new branches. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) represents modern India and is a religious personality who was loved throughout the world. He preached truth and non-violence and his attempts to reform India’s religious-social tradition of caste legendary as is his fight for India’s independence from colonial rule.
You don’t need to travel to India to immerse yourself in Indian culture and learn about Hinduism.
First impressions of the Hindu temple and grounds is one of spaciousness, then lushness – the garden flowering and emerald green grass plentiful. Driving in from the road you see the Cultural Centre first, and around the corner, you release an audible gasp at the magnificence of the temple barely glimpsed from the road.
Inside, after removing our shoes, the first thing you notice is incense thickened air. A sign requested no photos but apparently, our temple guide (a deacon) gave approval and Elisabetta shared this one she took.
Priests were attending to devotees so I chose to switch my phone off and instead purchased a very informative book about the history of the temple and details about Hinduism, including festivals and beliefs. An incredible bargain at $5.00.
The huge area seems cavernous but there are different sections with mini enclosures holding statues of various deities. The air heavy with incense and burning charcoal and within moments I felt my eyes sting. It was obvious couples and families were worshipping with the three out of the six priests on duty.
A young couple prayed with a priest by a fertility deity (?). The priest ladled into our cupped hands, the concoction made from fruit and flowers and signalled us to drink. The nectar tasteless to me, stirring memory of drinking kava at a ceremony in Fiji. There was a small open fire like a mini BBQ but generating plenty of smoke. The fire alarm constantly beeped because of its copious smoke and from a couple of similar fires.
I had a fleeting thought of what could happen if there were sprinklers!
Our guide explained there are gods (deities) for Education, Fertility, and Birth etc. Planets match your birth sign and some gods look after you. He explained about puja or pooja, a prayer ritual performed by Hindus to one or more deities in devotional worship.
Prayers can also be offered to host and honour a guest or to spiritually celebrate an event. It may honour or celebrate the presence of a special guest, or their memories after they die. A table with baskets of fruit (oranges, apples and bananas) for $15 and a well-stocked kiosk is just inside the entrance. the deities require offerings.
A temple is a busy place with chanting in Sanskrit and the buzz of conversations plus people moving across the polished floorboards and around the perimeter where cabinets or shrines hold statues of the gods. The black, grey, or gold figures often draped with pure silk gowns and scarves.
We walked past a cabinet that appeared to have a Nazi sign scrolled on glass doors – and a member of the group asked the significance of this, which remains an important symbol in Hinduism.
The swastika represented something entirely different for thousands of years before its appropriation by the Nazi Party, and for many, it is a sacred symbol.
Versions of the design have been found in prehistoric mammoth ivory carvings, Neolithic Chinese pottery, Bronze Age stone decorations, Egyptian textiles from the Coptic Period and amid the ruins of the Ancient Greek city of Troy.
Its most enduring and spiritually significant use, however, can be seen in India, where the swastika remains an important symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
Despite the explanation, one of our group whispered, ‘Try going down Carlisle Street with that on your car!’ A reminder that in a multicultural society we have to be even more diligent learning about other religions and beliefs and be perceptive to differentiate when a symbol should provoke instant repulsion and condemnation and when it is used in context of worship.
The etymology of the word “swastika” can be traced to three Sanskrit roots: ‘su’ (good), ‘asti’ (exists, there is, to be) and ‘ka’ (make). That the collective meaning of these roots is effectively ‘making of goodness’ or ‘marker of goodness’ shows just how far the Nazis dragged the swastika away from its Hindu association with wellbeing, prosperity and dharmic auspiciousness.
The symbol, normally with its arms bent towards the left, is also known in Hinduism as the sathio or sauvastika. Hindus mark swastikas on thresholds, doors and the opening pages of account books – anywhere where its power to ward off misfortune might come in handy.
… it was Indian religion and culture that was the original source from which the National Socialists derived the swastika.
In Buddhism, the swastika is thought to represent the footprints of the Buddha. It takes on a liturgical function in Jainism, and in Hinduism, the clockwise symbol (the swastika as we know it, with the arms pointing right) and the counterclockwise symbol, the sauvistika, pair up to portray opposites such as light and darkness.
The scent of flower petals mingled with fruit and incense and oils. I missed a lot of the explanations because naturally our guide spoke without amplification and my hearing is not as good as it used to be. Fortunately, the book I bought, published to celebrate a special Consecration Ceremony in April this year, is full of detail about Hinduism, the temple, the hard work and cohesion of the Indian community.
The Hindu Society of Victoria (HSV) was founded on Saraswathy pooja day in 1982 at the initiative of some Hindu migrants from Sri Lanka. Hindu migrants from India, Malaysia and other countries enthusiastically joined the Society. The topmost priority for this new gathering was to probe ways and means of realising a traditional Hindu temple. Prayer meetings were held on the last Saturday of each month at the Migrant Centre in Prahran. Poojas were performed to the pictures of deities by Sri Raman Iyer on these occasions. On 21 June 1984, this society was officially incorporated and referred to as the Hindu society of Victoria (Aust) Inc.
The HSV decided to buy a plot of land and build a temple… bought a block of land of 14.35 acres in Carrum Downs on 14 April 1985… made up of a bank loan, interest-free loans from devotees and donations. Bhoomi Poojah was performed at the site to invoke the blessings of the Almighty. Since then Thai Pongal Festival was celebrated at the site but prayer meetings continued at the Prahran Migrant Centre.
… there was a prolonged debate about the choice of deities to be installed in the temple. Eventually, the Management Committee decided to build a Shiva Vishnu temple facilitating devotees from all sects of Hinduism….
Building works started in October 1990 and Nagarajan Sthabathy and a team of 8 artisans arrived in November 1992… The Granite and Panchalokha Vigrahas and other artefacts required were crafted by well-known artisans in India. The Granite Vigrahas were sanctified by a special pooja at Kanchi Mutt.
Additional six artisans were brought from India in Jan 1994 to accelerate the temple construction… completed, with the erection of the raja Gopurams and consecration on 25 may 1997. This temple has become an inseparable part in the spiritualemancipation of the Hindus of Victoria. It has also become a must-see icon to all Hindus and non-Hindus in Australia…
Traditional Hindu temples are not just places of worship. They function as a place of learning, foster the arts and encourage social interaction. The Cultural and Heritage Centre opened on 5 May 2012, includes a wedding hall, restaurant with industrial-scale kitchen, library, Hinduism classrooms, museum and conference hall that can accommodate 200 people.
The Hinduism classes for children also offer Bhajan, Yoga and meditation for all ages. The centre hosts ceremonies on auspicious days, Hindu weddings, and a cafe open to the public, which operates six days a week.
A children’s park with playground equipment and an enclosure with peafowls and chicks as well as surrounding gardens with attractive flowers, trees, and lush foliage ensures a relaxing family-friendly environment.
The sign in the garden reads: Nature is Gods vesture. The universe is the ‘university’ for man. Do not pluck flowers treat nature with reverence.
We put on our shoes and joined the ever-patient bus driver after thanking our hosts for their welcome and farewelled the first place of worship for the day.
Shri Shiva Vishnu temple is one of the iconic Hindu temples outside the Indian subcontinent providing a spiritual and cultural legacy for future generations.
Whether you practice Hinduism or not, a visit will add to your knowledge and understanding, and appreciation of the wealth of talent immigrants bring to Australia.
Masjid Westall, Indonesian Muslim Community Cultural Centre
We travelled to Westall for our next visit to learn about Islam, a religion that has suffered the most backlash and bigotry in recent years despite Afghan cameleers being present in Australia since the early nineteenth century.
The first camel drivers arrived in Melbourne, Victoria, June 1860, when eight Muslims and Hindus arrived with the camels for the Burke and Wills expedition.
The word islam means ‘surrender’ and specifically implies ‘surrender to God’. A ‘muslim’ is therefore simply ‘one who surrenders’.
In the Muslim sacred text, the Qur’an, the story of Islam shares a common tradition with Judaism and a common Biblical origin when God (Allah) created the world. Chosen prophets spread the essential message of surrender to the One (Allah).
Muslims recognise all prophets including Moses and Jesus, Rama, Krishna and Buddha but the Prophet Muhammad is the vehicle whereby the Qur’an, the final protected Word of God was revealed.
Islam is the world’s second-largest religion with over 1.8 billion followers. They make up a majority of the population in 50 countries. We mainly hear about conflict in the Middle East but devotees extend all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the borders of China although the birthplace of this compelling faith was Arabia when it was a semi-nomadic and semi-urban civilization.
Islam is the most adhered to religion in Indonesia and in a 2010 estimate, 87.2% of the Indonesian population (225 million) identified as Muslim making Indonesia the largest Muslim population in the world.
At the Masjid Westall, we were greeted by two deacons who were generous with their knowledge and time. From the outside, the building is not imposing and doesn’t look like a mosque but once we removed our shoes and went inside the calmness and decor confirmed it was not ostentatious but a place of worship.
According to the 2016 Australian Census, the combined number of people who self-identified as Muslim in Australia, from all forms of Islam, constituted 604,200 people, or 2.6% of the total Australian population, an increase over its previous population share of 2.2% reported in the previous census 5 years…
… there are now 604,000 people who identify as Muslim in Australia. In addition, the Census reports that 1,140 of the Muslims in Australia are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders.
After a welcome prayer and blessing, the deacons let us wander freely and ask questions rather than give a formal guided tour. There are 3 Indonesian mosques in Victoria, and they do keep in touch with each other and share Imams, some are students from Saudi Arabia. The mosque is Sunni, the major and orthodox branch of Islam.
Islam hasn’t escaped the fate common to other religions: sectarian divisions. There are sub-sects, but the two main branches of Islam are Sunni and the Shi’ite. They spilt over the question of the line of succession from the Prophet Muhammad.
Muslims pray 5 times a day and a digital clock has the prayer times. During the day up to 5 people will come and pray because most are working – perhaps a taxi or truck driver if nearby, maybe students and teachers from Westall Secondary next door, or others ‘just passing’.
Sundown prayers and Fridays attract the largest number with up to 50 regulars. After Christchurch, many non-Muslims visited to offer condolences and support and prayed in solidarity. The mosque provided hijabs for them but because we were only visiting and not participating we did not need to cover our head.
We all commented on how luxurious the carpet felt beneath our feet and the room was spacious even with a section for the women and children curtained off. There is a library, also a study corner and out the back a kitchen and communal area where crafts and toys are stored on shelves.
Our two gentlemen guides had set up a table with nibbles and tea and coffee – most hospitable and welcome. One deacon tried but failed to get his pictures up on his phone to show me the crowd of well-wishers who came to the mosque after the horrific events in Christchurch.
No question went unanswered and cameras worked overtime. Several people stood with the Imam’s arch in the background, others were fascinated by the displayed prayer times and mentioned seeing taxi drivers pull over to pray.
I remembered a tale of two young men…
In 2013, flying to Italy via Borneo and London, I sat between the pair. One was returning to Egypt for a holiday after being in Australia most of his life, the other, a student returning home after finishing studies at Queensland University.
The young Egyptian/Australian struggled out of his window seat to diligently adhere to the prayer times – there was a prayer mat aft, available for passengers – and throughout the flight, he read the Qur’an.
He confided in me that he had become more devout because of prejudice at work and all the things said about Muslims in the media. He felt he had to learn more about his faith (his parents and sister weren’t devout) and his origins – hence the trip “home”. He seemed unworried about the fall-out from the ‘Arab Spring’ and the ongoing sporadic violence.
The young student, returning home to his family and Muslim country didn’t bother praying and read a popular sci-fi novel in between discussing general topics ranging from history to politics and poetry. He confessed he’d love to return and work in Australia because he loved the freedom to choose his lifestyle and the climate.
I’ve often wondered what happened to these two young men – did their future turn out the way they wanted?
A little more enlightened about Masjid Westall and seeing Westall Secondary College and surrounds for the first time we set off for our lunch stop at Westall Hub – a place I’d never visited before the intergenerational project last year and one I’ve visited twice in the last four months!
I thought about the fuss in Bendigo about the building of the mosque and cultural centre and reflected on how many people would have driven or walked past Masjid Westall with no idea there is a welcome within if ever their curiosity needs satisfied.
Breaking Bread often Breaks The Ice!
Kingston Council hosted a lovely lunch at the Westall Hub providing a chance to sit and make conversation, get to know each other and share observations.
‘That was a while ago,’ I replied, ‘You have a good memory.’
We shared our interest and curiosity about the tour. Ann, a practising Catholic was born in Lithuania; her mother could speak seven languages and because of this Ann understood Russian. Four of the people on the bus were chatting. ‘They’re speaking Russian and probably don’t realise I understand what they were saying,’ she said with a smile.
At lunch, a lady sat down beside me, ‘Do you remember me, Mairi?’
‘When I saw you, I thought you looked familiar, but I can’t place you.’
‘I’m Honey, you came to my library and ran a couple of wonderful writing workshops.’
‘Honey! Of course, that was a long time ago – how are you?’
A small world, indeed. The phrase ‘six degrees of separation’ springs to mind. Almost two decades have passed since I ran workshops at Springvale Library. I cherish the letter of appreciation from Honey and the opportunity she gave me to improve workshop skills.
I was not a ‘big name’ author yet she gave me a chance and a paid gig!
There was only one young person under 30 travelling on the bus but a Samoan family followed in their car a father with his son and daughter who could be teens or twentysomethings.
Chatting at lunch, he was pleased I’d been to Samoa. He new Aniva’s Place where I stayed. I told him about climbing Mt Vaea and paying homage to R L Stevenson’s tomb and we discussed the contribution RLS had made to Samoa, which explained why he was so revered.
He said, ‘His greatest achievement was uniting the chiefs and teaching them to negotiate and achieve independence.’
I mentioned how much new history I’d learned when in Samoa. I had forgotten they had been a German colony and about the peaceful surrender to the British during the war.
‘My great grandfather could speak German and he was an interpreter for the German/British negotiations,‘ he said and confided his Scots ancestry – family names being Crichton and Williams!
We talked a little more about Samoa and how surprised I was at the number and variety of churches in such a small place as Apia. Religion is important to Samoans and there are many rituals, including traditional Sunday feasting.
(A later discussion with his daughter and son ranged from the problem of feral dogs to their relief Folau was Tongan, not Samoan!)
Our conversation ended with a quiz – he asked, ‘What one word did Samoa give to the English language?’
The answer, ‘Tattoo.’
My final lunchtime chat was with Dr Dinesh Sood who said, ‘I used to be a practising Hindu but now I’m a scientist,’ and a lady who used to be Russian Orthodox professed to ‘being an atheist and humanitarian‘…
I said we were an eclectic bunch.
However, what I remember most about the lunch stop happened outside when I went for a walk after spying two galahs on the power lines cuddling up to each other. They looked like a heart and I thought, what a great photo opportunity.
I walked to the edge of the car park and as I aimed my camera, I heard a distressed chirrup. I looked down and a seagull sat on the nature strip with an obvious broken wing, begging for help.
What to do?
I returned to the Hub and asked at reception for help and a wonderful young woman responded immediately, ‘I’ll get a cardboard box and rescue it.’
True to her word, she sprang into action. I watched from the bus in trepidation when her initial effort to pick up the bird caused it to scurry lopsided across the busy road. Wielding her jacket, she persisted and as trucks and cars roared past, I fretted for her safety.
‘Please be careful,’ I murmured … miraculously, the bird and rescuer made it the other side, escaping further injury. She scooped the seagull into her jacket and returned to safety when the road was clear.
St George Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, Heatherton
The third visit for the day introduced a completely new church to me and again the obligatory removal of shoes.
We were met by the priest and a warm welcoming committee. There was a powerpoint presentation, also two short talks on the history and origins of what devotees regard as the first church where the name ‘Christian’ applied.
It began in Antioch, with St Peter, after the death of Christ and surviving persecution the faithful travelled to India.
The first family practising this branch of Christianity arrive in Melbourne in 2006. Since then the number of families has reached 200 and within a decade they have raised the money to build their church and also donate thousands to charity.
(They gave $20,000 to the Kerala flood victims among other causes. A generous effort for a small congregation!)
A group of dancers performed a traditional dance of celebration about a reluctant bride being convinced the wedding is a good idea!
The costumes, music and performers a delightful treat and afterwards many took advantage of the opportunity to ask questions and join in discussions. I was fascinated by the striking curtains and altars – the furthest away can only be entered by the priest and designated elders, the smaller one is open to all.
Having St George and Jacobite in the name intrigued me – as a Scot, Jacobite referred to supporters of King James II of England or of the Stuarts claim to the throne. I know many Christian churches use different versions of the King James Bible as their sacred text but never realised one incorporated Jacobite in their name.
The mythology of St George predates Christianity and any stories I learnt as a child about his Christianity – light conquering darkness – were set in the 10th or 11th century, hence him becoming the patron saint of England. The origin story of this church interesting and proves religion is full of surprises.
Later, delicious and sumptuous afternoon tea made some of us reluctant to get back on the bus. We were farewelled with an unexpected gift and will certainly remember our visit!
Turkish Islamic and Cultural Centre, Keysborough
Our final visit for the day was another mosque and one I’d seen from the highway many times. The imposing building flying the Australian flag and one with the symbol of Islam – the star and crescent moon.
Outside, we were warmly welcomed by a teacher from an Islamic school and several students with an open invitation to ask questions and let the students be our guides.
After removing our shoes and covering heads, we sat and listened to a welcome speech by the Imam and a young female student. The Imam’s mobile phone rang, ‘Excuse me, could be Jesus calling,‘ he said.
I love his sense of humour! In fact, laughter and smiles a significant part of the day in all the places we visited.
After the phone call, he continued with his explanation of the Five Pillars of Islam: Shahadah (Creed), Salat (Prayer), Zakay (Almsgiving), Fasting and Pilgrimage (Hajj) and a brief history of the mosque and fielded questions before inviting us on a tour.
The art and woodwork stunning inside the mosque. Most of the artisanship done locally, some imports from Turkey. The ceiling magnificent, the chandelier adorned with a Qur’anic verse in Muhammed’s favourite colour, green.
Oh, I didn’t know he was Irish,’ I quipped and my young guide laughed. She pointed out the balcony upstairs where women worship and explained the delicacy of the stencilling on the ceiling and how time-consuming the job was for the artist.
The colours, designs, placement of artefacts, windows, doors, balcony – all hold symbolic meaning. There are three places where the imam can preach depending on the number of devotees. There is a beautiful raised staircase with detailed carving and inlays.
One of the young students sang a prayer and it reminded me of being in R L Stevenson’s house in Samoa and the young guide singing a verse of his favourite hymn. Another memorable experience was being alone in the church at Hermannsburg Mission, Central Australia and Jan Cornell, the leader of the group I was with sang to test the acoustics.
The unaccompanied human voice raised in a song of praise can be truly beautiful.
Our visit coincided with one of the regular prayer times and the Imam excused himself to attend to several men waiting to pray. We sat up the back in silent contemplation.
I don’t know what the others were thinking but as I watched the prayer ritual it struck me how vulnerable these men were and how trusting. They didn’t know any of us but believed they were in a safe space just like those worshippers in Christchurch and many other places where people have been attacked.
Their trust, vulnerability, and devotion humbling.
We trooped outside for the last few photographs and the bus journey home. If there are different places on the list, I look forward to joining another tour.
No one tried to convert me and I had no epiphany, just interesting conversations and experiences to mull over and deposit in my memory bank.
While attending two great free workshops on aspects of Scottish history at the Prahran Mechanics’ Institute Victorian History Library last week, I picked up a flyer for another event in Stonnington – also free. (I’m prepared for the jokes about stereotypical Scot being mean!)
This is a fabulous opportunity to learn some historical background and context for many of the female characters in the classic novels of Charles Dickens and to see yet another superb collection of clothes from the Dressing Australia Museum of Costume that provided the wonderful collection of clothes and other items for Be persuaded – Jane Austen, an exhibition by Glen Eira Council in January 2019.
Fiona and Keith Baverstock use the period fashion, textiles and fashion ephemera in their collection to create a themed exhibition, which they then take on tour. The research and attention to detail and the information supplied truly awesome.
Similar to many people, I read Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist while at high school. Later, I watched the many film and television adaptations of novels such as Bleak House, David Copperfield, The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Nicholas Nickelby produced by the BBC among others.
Many of Dickens’ characters and their utterances are household names. I’ve used quotes from his books in my creative writing classes, also extracts from newspaper articles because Dickens was a journalist before becoming a novelist.
Although, as one exhibit explains, he would fit right into the current complaints of ‘fake news’ because Dickens had a dramatic streak. Always a creative writer at heart with emphasis on the ‘creative’ instead of factual reporting, he embellished stories to make them more interesting for the readers!
Charles Dickens is revered as a writer and most of the accolades are well-deserved. However, a neat summary of his life, plus many books, plays, and articles written revealing his complex personality, misbehaviour, and shabby treatment of his wife may disappoint some fans.
First impressions of the Exhibition are of being on set preparing to make a historical film; the display of dresses stunning and cleverly grouped. The varied colours and designs catch your eye and display cases have accessories laid out as if in preparation to be donned.
You start to wander around the room and become absorbed in the stories of the women who peopled the novels of Dickens. You may be fascinated when examining the outfits and imagining their lives. What must it have been like moving around in voluminous gowns, restrictive corsetry and even more restrictive social mores and expectations?
Sairey (Sarah) Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit
Dickens had a talent for creating memorable caricatures – comical but also despicable. They often personified the seven deadly sins: envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth and wrath… and introduced words from the vernacular that became common usage.
Sarah Gamp exemplified greed, selfishness and as a drunken nurse/midwife displayed a callous disregard for others. She was ‘ a potent weapon in the campaign against untrained, incompetent nurses. It took a Florence Nightingale to fully expose and sweep aside the armies of Sarah Gamps.’
The 1840s gown with evidence of wear and tear is slate-coloured striped taffeta. She presided over so many deaths so wears a mourning apron and black, crepe trimmed taffeta mourning cape and her ‘gamp’ (umbrella).
The image of Mrs Gamp’s ‘gig’ umbrella clutched to her person wherever she went, or displayed ‘with particular ostentation’ against the chimney breast of her bird-sized apartment above the bird fancier’s shop in Holborn so resonated with readers that ‘gamp’ became synonymous with umbrella, just as ‘Sarah Gamp’ became synonymous with a slovenly, inebriated ‘nurse’.
A gig was a light carriage with two wheels pulled by a single horse. In the latter part of the 19th century, it was deemed suitable for ladies to drive around their estates or into the village.
... ‘the lady would need a nifty weapon to beat off any ne’er-do-wells with the temerity to approach, and when stepping down she would need a handy little parasol. The gold cap comes off the sycamore case, the parasol slides out and screws neatly into the gold tip on the other end, Voila, protection from the sun or rain.’
There was nothing dainty or lady-like about Sarah Gamp. She would have driven a cart and her ‘gamp’ a heavy umbrella.
Catherine Dickens – the discarded wife
It was the actress Miriam Margoyles portraying Catherine Dickens in her play Dickens’ Womenbased on or inspired by 23 different characters in the novels by Dickens that made me think more deeply about how women were portrayed by the great storyteller.
One reviewer said the production highlighted Dickens’ “obsession with youthful beauty and his baffling relationships with his sister-in-law”.
The detailed notes along with the chosen gown for Dickens’ wife are not complimentary to the man and emphasise how unfair the legal, as well as the social system, was regarding the treatment of women.
Reading about Catherine and looking at the dresses on display you can’t help but notice the tiny waists, the design drawing attention to the breasts and of course, being the era of gloves and hats, there was a dress code or expectation a lady had accessories.
How long did it take to get dressed?
How complicated were the designs to maintain – especially considering the material used?
And in an era of women producing baby after baby, how unsuitable were those clothes for pregnancy, breastfeeding and caring for children, let alone housework.
My paternal grandmother was married in 1900, the clothes hadn’t changed that much from the years before and the family story is that she fainted twice on her wedding day as her sister pulled the corset strings tight enough to ensure she had the obligatory 18-inch waist to fit her wedding dress!
Nancy in Oliver Twist, a ‘fallen woman’
Dickens never used the term prostitute or sex worker in his novel but readers are under no illusion about Nancy and her friend Bet described:
“They wore a good deal of hair, not very neatly turned up behind, and were rather untidy about the shoes and stockings. They were not exactly pretty, perhaps; but they had a great deal of colour in their faces, and looked quite stout and healthy. being remarkably free and easy with their manners, Oliver thought them to be very nice girls indeed. Which there is no doubt they were.”
I read Oliver Twist when I was fifteen and stark images of Victorian England and the appalling living standards of the poor in cities like London remain with me. Dickens
“… knew how to hold an audience. The themes in his novels did, however, challenge the accepted beliefs of the day. Oliver Twist shines a light into the dark underbelly of life in the cities like London, confronting the comfortable complacent with the relationship between poverty and crime, revealing the iniquity and inequity of the Poor Laws and the Workhouse system – and its inept and corrupt officials.”
I can remember hoping that Nancy, who showed kindness to Oliver, would somehow be miraculously transformed and freed from the seedy clutches of Bill Sykes, but deep down knew her shockingly violent death was inevitable.
The ruched and frilled dress with elaborate cording, tight waist, laced back and revealing cleavage was chosen because the silky style would have appealed to Nancy, even if she would have preferred a more striking colour. This dress was ‘Perkins Purple’ and faded over time to mauve and then pearly grey.
In my imagination, Nancy would have worn feathers in her bonnet and always had a shawl!
Miss Havisham – who can forget a woman scorned?
There have been many adaptations of Great Expectations and it remains one of Dickens’ more popular novels. Again he takes on the establishment, the ‘haves’ and emphasises the divide between the rich and poor.
The powerful regard poverty as a crime and use prison to punish those who ‘have not’. The story of a young man overcoming obstacles to achieve success another of his recurring themes.
But it is the jilted, embittered, and wealthy Miss Havisham living in a ruined mansion with her adopted daughter Estella, who fascinates and intrigues readers and leaves a lasting impression. She still wears her wedding dress as if frozen in time.
Twenty minutes to nine was the moment the letter arrived revealing the calumny of her fiance. There she was in her wedding gown, the wedding breakfast and adornments laid out in readiness, one satin slipper still to don. And there she remained. Since then, the wedding breakfast, the decorations, the room have been weighed down by dust and cobwebs, have been nibbled by decay and vermin till the house itself is crumbling. The fraudster Compeyson took her future and her fortune (although obviously not all of it) and might as well have taken her life.
Her revenge is Estella, whom she has fashioned into a weapon to destroy men and the hapless Pip is the whetstone on which Estella is to hone her skills…
The addendum to “Expectations unfulfilled – Miss Havisham” states that
‘Dickens has trouble with consistency when he sets his novels in an earlier era. This is certainly evident with the ages and setting of Great Expectations. We’ve chosen to place Miss Havisham’s wedding in the early 1800s and have dressed her in a distressed, disintegrating Regency style gown.’
All of the costumes are original 19th-century outfits and so the ‘distressed’ signs are natural. Dressing Australia’s disclaimer that they’ve chosen what they think fits/suits each character rather than adhering strictly to the publication date of the novels, although many of the costumes coincide nicely.
Oliver Twist was published in 1837, but Nancy’s gown is from a later decade. It was chosen to represent the ‘tart with a heart‘ and Nancy’s notion of what is ladylike. Estella’s exquisite gown is from the late 1850s when Dickens was writing Great Expectations, published in 1860, although the story was set in an earlier era.
Madame Defarge – Knitting while heads rolled
Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities,a novel set in the time of the French Revolution is the embittered wife of a wine shop owner who owed his status and business to her revolutionary fervour.
She enjoyed knitting the names of the aristocrats she plotted to send to the guillotine and while weaving their names into Liberty Caps sat and watched their heads roll off the beheading machine.
Acknowledged as a leader of the Tricoteuse Movement, which evolved from the Market Women heroines who marched on Versailles and became ‘too uncontrollable and troublesome, and barred from the gallery of the National Convention and from political assemblies’ she proves to be devious and brutal even if her vengeful crusade facilitated by The Reign of Terror is justified.
Madame Defarge’s sister and unborn child, brother, brother-in-law and father were all killed by Darnay’s uncle, assisted by his father.
The green shot silk gown is ‘somewhat distressed’ polonaised over a black quilted satin petticoat. The Liberty Cap is pinned with a rosette and a rose. (Madame Defarge popped a rose in her cap warning that ‘outsiders’ were nearby and it was not safe for revolutionaries or the Tricoteuse to speak.)
Confronting the Ghosts of Christmas
A Christmas Carol probably ranks as one of the most read of Dickens’ novels along with Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. If not read, most English speaking people will still have heard of Scrooge or know what it means to call someone a scrooge!
A Christmas Carol sold out the minute it hit the bookstands in 1843 and has remained a favourite ever since. It has the feel-good factor – goodness triumphs over the mean and mean-spirited, adversity can be overcome, redemption is possible…
A man without conscience is not confronted by his own humanity, yet that is precisely what the Ghost of Christmas Past does to Scrooge. Look at how you used to be. Look at how others used to view you. Look at how you felt when facing rejection. Look at the beginnings of your loss of innocence when you chose greed over love.
A man entirely without compassion cares not when confronted by disturbing images of the distress of others, a man without imagination does not see what he might be missing. Yet that is precisely what the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge.
A man who is impervious to the consequences of his actions, who cares not that he has alienated all who might care for him, who does not mind a lonely, uncelebrated life and death will take no notice of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. And yet Scrooge does.
He has confronted his ghosts, is redeemed and regains his humanity and compassion.
The exhibition’s vision of the three ghosts as women enabled an interesting choice of costumes:
Christmas Past represented by a distressed Regency gown – a style from Scrooge’s youth
Christmas Present represented by a brown moire two-piece gown – a style from Scrooge’s present.
Christmas Yet to Come represented by a brown stripe taffeta gown of 1869 – a style yet to come.
There are so many characters from other novels with their stories summarised and the reasons for the choice of garments explained – please catch the exhibition before it closes.
Stand and ponder how these women lived – imagine riding in a carriage beside them, walking down a crowded London street navigating flower sellers, spruikers, beggars, even chimney sweeps… attending a dress fitting, visiting for high tea, soliciting, waiting for an errant husband or an abandoned lover, knitting while aristocrats lost their heads or haunting mean-spirited men!
Pity the poor seamstresses
Whenever I read about the world of Dickens and see the clothes of the era, the textiles, antiquated machinery, and the appalling factory conditions I am amazed at the complicated patterns, intricate beading and buttons, and delicate embroidery on the gowns, shawls and hats.
How resilient and talented must those tailors and seamstresses have been and yet we know workers in the clothing trades historically and even in current times are consistently some of the most abused, underpaid and exploited.
In much more modern times, my Aunt Chrissie was a tailoress in Scotland and eventually owned her own sewing school when she migrated to Australia. My older sister, Cate inherited Chrissie’s gift for sewing, crochet, knitting, embroidery… all handicrafts and I’ve written about her talent and her award-winning quilting.
One night, watching my sister sit and sew by a bedside lamp I was inspired to write a villanelle…
A Stitch in Time
Mairi Neil (2014)
She sits sewing by dim lamplight
embroidered threads by her side
contented, happy, eyes shining bright.
In the stillness of evening light
needle and thread silently glide,
as she sits sewing by pale moonlight.
Cross stitches pattern small and tight
new techniques taken in her stride
contented, happy, eyes shining bright.
Her creativity in wondrous flight
imagination flows like the tide
as she sits sewing by candlelight.
Machines embraced despite Luddites
mass production becomes her guide
contentment gone, eyes no longer bright
History records seamstresses’ plight
workers stripped of all but pride
many still struggle in shadowed light
exploited, sad, eyes no longer bright.
It was standard practice for women to learn how to sew and for those who did not have to work or scrabble for their living, sitting doing crochet, cross-stitch and embroidery of Bible texts, the alphabet or seasonal motifs considered a genteel pastime.
The exhibition has a lot of interesting historical detail and invaluable research for any would-be writer. Information about waves of migrants bringing new skills, new technology and techniques and of course, fashion fads. Wonderful background fillers that may even inspire short stories or novels.
Stitched with Love
“The first printed patterns for stitching woolwork on canvas were produced in Berlin in the first half of the 19th century. The craft, which became known as Berlin woolwork was promoted at the Great exhibition of 1851 in London just as the middle classes were expanding and more women had the leisure to stitch, and just as new chemical dyes produced never before imagined colours.
Some of the most popular designs were for slipper vamps and uppers. Some, like these, were never attached and have survived for us to admire. A favourite dog stitched with love.”
On Thursday evening, July 4th, my friend Jillian came with me to a fabulous event in the annual Glen Eira Storytelling Festival.
Not only was the event free but they put on a cuppa and delicious choice of biscuits if you turned up before starting time and plenty of us did that!
I no longer work at Godfrey Street in Bentleighwhere I used to encourage my students to enter the writing competitions (and in past years a couple got guernseys!) however, my Facebook feed alerts me to Glen Eira Council posts.
For anyone writing recent family history (Jillian) or stories about or based on their own life (me), Thursday’s event was a great shortcut for historical detail, reminders of what Melbourne’s suburbs used to be like and a way to generate ideas to turn your life into interesting fact or fiction with specific research done by people passionate about the past and with an established following for their writing.
Nostalgia and the ‘Burbs
Award-winning television and radio broadcaster, Libbi Gorr hosted a panel of contemporary artists and authors with research, websites, and books devoted to cultural observations of our changing suburbs.
Libbi, currently, on ABC Radio Melbourne Weekends was known as Elle McFeast in the 90s.
Lisbeth Joanne “Libbi” Gorr is an Australian broadcaster working in both TV and radio. Gorr is also an author, voice artist, writer and performer. She first came to prominence with the satirical television character that she created called “Elle McFeast”.
With her comedic skills to the fore, Libbi introduced herself by saying she looked up the meaning of Libbi and it was a wallflower, so she chose Elle because in the 90s the model and magazine was associated with long legs and great tits.
She explained that if you wanted to know her job on ABC Radio Melbourne think of her as the Waheed Ali of the weekend except she has a Jewish background, or Miranda Kerr after a feed and Oprah on Crack…
She was a young Jewish girl growing up in Murrumbena, a suburb ‘not quite Caulfield’. Her father originally, from Shepparton but his family escaped the pogroms of Russia. Her grandfather came to Australia at the same time as the Myer family but he worked on the Snowy Hydro scheme.
Sidney Myer’s family got the Sidney Myer Bowl, her father got a fruit bowl – Shepparton.
Libbi’s mother born in Caulfield – a pharmacist like her mother – ‘two generations of druggies’. Her father owned a petrol station, Gorr Automotive so Libbi said, ‘she could sniff cocaine or petrol’…
Libbi’s introduction, placing herself as a local with a connection to place important for the ‘home crowd’ – and it was a crowd – in excess of 100 people packed the room. Not a bad turn out for a winter’s evening.
The blurb on the invite about ‘burbs said:
As corner milk bars disappear, video stores shut their doors and quirky suburban houses and landscapes give way to gentrification, a group of writers, photographers and artists have set about capturing the quirks and nostalgia of our changing suburban landscapes.
Join us for an evening of cultural observations from the ‘burbs, trips done memory lane and some musings on the very strange phenomenon we call nostalgia.
Why is Nostalgia important?
Before Libbi introduced the panel she mused that Carl Jung answered that question when he studied how childhood experiences are cemented as unconscious memories connecting us to our past.
Our unconscious is the part of the mind containing memories and impulses of which we may not even be aware.
Jung talked about ‘collective unconscious’, a term to represent a form of the unconscious common to mankind as a whole and originating in the inherited structure of the brain.
We all have experienced premonitions – a sense that we know who is on the phone before it rings and we pick it up. We all have had deja vu, that feeling we’ve been somewhere before…
Jungians, almost by definition, tend to get enthused anytime something previously hidden reveals itself when whatever’s been underground finally makes it to the surface.
Carl Jung founded the field of analytical psychology and, along with Sigmund Freud, was responsible for popularizing the idea that a person’s interior life merited not just attention but dedicated exploration — a notion that has since propelled tens of millions of people into psychotherapy.
… Jung, over time, came to see the psyche as an inherently more spiritual and fluid place, an ocean that could be fished for enlightenment and healing.
Whether or not he would have wanted it this way, Jung — who regarded himself as a scientist — is today remembered more as a countercultural icon, a proponent of spirituality outside religion and the ultimate champion of dreamers and seekers everywhere, which has earned him both posthumous respect and posthumous ridicule.
Jung’s ideas laid the foundation for the widely used Myers-Briggs personality test and influenced the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous. His central tenets — the existence of a collective unconscious and the power of archetypes — have seeped into the larger domain of New Age thinking while remaining more at the fringes of mainstream psychology.
Nostalgia is a sense that connects and cements us all and Libbi wanted the panel and the audience to consider what we get in a community when we share it or live it…
Jessie Scott, video artist and author of The Coburg Plan. Jessie is doing her PhD – the subject, video stores. She has researched many, interviewed owners and customers.
Eamon Donnelly, artist, photographer and author of The Milk Bars Book. Born in Geelong, the family moved to Melbourne. He began to take photos of places/shops. Many are now defunct and others are disappearing fast. He spent 15 years documenting change before publishing his first softcover book. A cultural artisan, his hardback book was on sale for the evening.
David Wadelton, a contemporary artist, photographer and author of soon to be published, Suburban Baroque.
Aron Lewin, journalist/writer – recording football and real estate, chronicling progression of Melbourne shops, a Real Estate reporter. He set up the Tales of Bricks And Mortar website https://talesofbrickandmortar.com/author/alewin1/ after collecting stories about longstanding shops, restaurants and cafes across Melbourne.
Projected in the background were slides taken by the panel and whenever a familiar shop appeared, a murmur of recognition rippled through the audience.
I nudged Jillian when a picture came up of a milk bar in Edithvale and one in Seaford – several of my students have mentioned these shops in their stories.
David Wadelton – Documenting Transition
Abandoned shops, shops replaced with apartments, empty blocks… places symbolising change and loss all interest David. Change over time affects not just buildings when factories are replaced by apartments, shops on a local strip disappear or are replaced by a shopping centre…
He was fascinated by how different postwar migrant housing was compared to traditional Aussie houses. Old weatherboard home extensions added a top storey of brick to make houses look more European. The decor and colour schemes inside were soft furnishings and souvenirs from ‘the old country’.
He has photographed milk bars, newsagents, fish and chip shops… Lightbox signs: ‘sweets and smokes’ in Footscray; an adult ‘newsboy’ in Northcote, small Barbershops in business 50+ years with souvenirs of their European homeland and their adopted homeland on the walls and counters.
He has a picture of Thornbury Espresso slide, Hattams clothes shop still with a sign ‘we take bankcard’…
David has a following and audience on Flicker, Instagram, and Google’s YouTube – he has made the transition from traditional print to digital.
While David was talking I thought about the milkbar that used to be at the end of Albert Street Mordialloc before several adjacent shops were demolished and turned into an ugly block of flats.
Several people tried to make a go of the business, impacted by an expanded Safeway supermarket and a new Jewels Supermarket built in Main Street. An elderly couple ran the milkbar in 1984 when John and I moved into Albert Street.
It was not long before they retired and it was bought by a man who owned another shop in Warren Road. He installed his son and a mate to run the shop before a retired army officer, originally from Wales became the last manager.
Albert Street changed dramatically in the early 90s – a petrol station/garage demolished for a nursing home, washing machine repair shop transformed into a hairdressing salon and the milk bar and mini hardware shop demolished for a block of flats. Several stand-alone houses made way for units.
Aron Lewin – Writing Poems About People and Places
Aron saw a picket fence shop and wondered who would start a shop like that, how long would it last – and it inspired a poem about why and how… and he got an idea for a website.
He went to interview the owners but they were not interested. However, from there he looked at other small business owners in the area, shops in a strip – proprietors all knew each other with most shops around 40 and 50 years. In fact, the owners were local identities.
He focused on ones that stayed in the same place for years because he wanted to capture their stories before businesses closed and disappeared as they will…
He was fascinated by what motivated these business owners, why did they choose their particular trade/product/lifestyle? What were their challenges, successes, failures? How did they see themselves in relation to the community?
He took photos with his mobile, then teamed with a proper photographer. He aimed to interview ten people but now has fifty stories!
From a small beginning, his enthusiasm and passion to record the stories and details of old shops across Melbourne propelled and grew into a big project. It’s all about connections and relationships with a local community – stories about the butcher, the baker, the barber… recorded before the people and places disappear.
A slide of Franks Bakery, Elsternwick flashed onto the screen eliciting lots of noises of recognition from the audience and Libbi.
‘Aw, Frank, lovely man – been there forever.’
Aron said, ‘ I saw a sign couple of days ago. It’s closing.’
‘Oh, no!’ gasped Libbi, ‘is this true? Does anyone know?’ she asked the audience.
There were murmurings and Libbi googled to check if there was anything on the Bakery website – as did others on the panel and in the audience!
Jessie Scott – Extracting meaning From Unloved & Neglected Sites
A video artist/photographer, Jessie’s PhD is about Video Stores. She grew up in Moonee Ponds and the western suburbs. So many small places are disappearing, the renowned Olympic Donut place is gone and street after street subjected to gentrification with the real estate boom.
At university, she rediscovered video shops when she was studying video art and did an assignment, her Miraculous Ribbon Project. Slides of Colac Video and Network Video shops that existed then but those stores are either closed and empty or gone now.
No longer the ‘Home Entertainment Experts’.
A Video Ezy shop was her local store. She got a text message to say it was closing and having a ‘fire sale’. That moment was when she realised how painful nostalgia felt because part of her childhood disappeared when that store closed.
People congregated to discuss, gossip, share news in the video stores. Staff would point out good movies – there’d be discussions, it was a social and family place.
Video Stores were often the first point of contact with a broader culture for people. Nowadays with the explosion of the Internet, there is access to whatever you want but when she was growing up it was a family outing to choose your entertainment for the weekend.
Jessie’s talk reminded me of the two video shops we had in Mordialloc. Most of the time, John took the girls to choose their movies – $5 for the latest release (if they were lucky), or more likely a selection of the weekly $2 ones. (I’m talking ’90s.)
Captain Beaky’s store was their favourite and the owner nicknamed the girls ‘the horror queens’ because they loved hiring the latest horror movies – Buffy the Vampire Slayer popular!
The man in the other store on the opposite side of Main Street was nice and friendly too. Just as well because when we returned from a holiday once, the friend looking after our house and dog forgot to return the videos and left them where Goldie decided to treat them as toys she disliked.
When I offered to pay for replacements, the Video guy just laughed and said not to bother because accidents happen. Obviously, a dog lover or no one else had our taste in videos.
Eamon Donnelly – The Milkbar Man
He was born 1981 in Geelong, his happy memories as a child are of copper coins in his back pocket as he rode his bike or walked to the milkbar to buy some lollies or ice cream.
His favourite milkbar run by the Hawkings Family.
Milkbars had colour, warmth, sounds and smells – sweet aromas – lollies, ice creams, and the owners knew everyone. They also sold cigarettes and often newspapers.
He is nostalgic for the 1980s. In the 1990s, his parents sold their renovated home and moved to Melbourne suburbia. Their new suburb did not have nearby milkbar but a golf club as a substitute.
Eamon went to university and studied graphic design and art. He returned to Geelong to take photos of his old family home and didn’t recognise the area: the family home altered, several milk bars gone – some had old signage left, others the building vanished.
He started to record Geelong first, then Melbourne – so many small businesses closing but iconic brands and typography remembered by lots of people.
Milkbars made milkshakes and spiders – many also provided school lunches being a nearby tuck shop (one even called the milkbar that).
He got a story in The Age about his first book – a soft cover book. Jenny, the daughter of one of the milkbar owners – the Hawkings – Googled him and got in touch. She loved the photographs and they corresponded.
He experienced a ‘Full Circle Moment’ – he was invited to meet the family and the Hawkings remembered the Donnellys. They met and had dinner and reminisced and discovered so many incidents were their life or the life of family members and friends crossed.
Eamon started to interview families because lots of people got in touch after the first book came out and he saw the need to save their stories.
Audience Response confirmed we love to indulge in Nostalgia
A young woman introduced herself as Phyllis. She grew up in a milkbar and her father is in Eamon’s book.
She got emotional and apologised. Her dad passed away two years ago so the book is a treasure, ‘ I come from a Greek background, Dad was Greek.’
Libbi asked how she managed not to gorge on lollies and Phyllis laughed. ‘Dad was Greek, he said, if you steal lollies, I’ll cut your hands off, and I believed him!’
Phyllis then went on to say how much she admired her father and others like him who had little or no English when they arrived in Australia yet still ran a business.
How did they do it? Her father couldn’t speak enough English to learn or remember customer’s names but called them by descriptions like ‘giraffe lady’ (a woman who was really tall). He remembered customers that way.
She believes the milkbar building is still there in Elsternwick but now an Indian restaurant or perhaps a dodgy hamburger place!
Eamon remembered Phyllis’s dad and said there is a beautiful black and white photo of him behind the counter in his shop. He remembered how he was always smiling when he greeted customers.
A man in the audience shared a story too.
His uncle had a milkbar in Swanston Street in Melbourne city just before Bourke Street. It was a cafe too and ‘served Aussie tucker: bacon and eggs and chips.’
He used to help his uncle during holidays by selling toffee apples.
His parents had a milkbar in Huntingdale Road near Huntingdale Railway Station and in the 1960s, it was one of the busiest milkbars in Melbourne.
He ran the milkbar at 15 years old because his father got ill. They made sandwiches for nearby factories which proliferated at that time in Huntingdale. They opened from 6am – 10 pm but got a sleep-in at weekends and opened at 8.00am.
Because of some quirk in the law, they couldn’t sell groceries after 5.00pm but bribed the inspectors. They’d board up shop and after the inspection open up again. The inspectors went away with a carton of cigarettes or large salami sausage or something similar. They also sold sly grog – brandy – an inherited side of the business from previous owners.
He remembered they sold sanitary pads, which were wrapped in brown paper in those days. Ladies would come into the shop and ask to be served by his mother. She would come and duly serve them but yell to him, ‘Get a packet of pads for the lady.’
Local shops provided entertainment, produce and local news!
David has been chronicling architecture of the 70s 80s 90s. Other buildings, as well as shops and milkbars, fascinated by their nostalgic and iconic status.
His focus on the broader conspicuous change – they were on every street corner, they personify and represent change on a broader scale – no room for family businesses anymore.
Regarding the houses of migrants of that era with taste-defying interiors, garish colour schemes, eccentricity and clash of ideas – this is vanishing. Everything homogenised today, everything the same – colour schemes beige and shades of beige!
We are seeing a homogenising of culture, tastes have radically changed. He is just documenting but sees so much slipping away. His mission to record a way of life vaporising before our own eyes.
What contributes to the change?
Employment laws have an impact:
Contracts, transient and casual employees, staff constantly changing in franchise stores like 7/11 so no attachment to customers, no special relationship like with milkbars and small family businesses.
No sentimentality with 7/11 and similar franchises
Convenience stores have prepackaged mixed lollies – no choosing your own,’ one of these, two of them…’ The signage generic, the atmosphere different.
You remember the place and the people in a family business, you are cemented to it even if an employee.
You chat and value the conversations, reflect on relationships that extend beyond the shop – perhaps go to school with children, attend the same church… the shop an extension of that community.
Do relationships stay in the shop or do they exist and extend beyond that boundary?
Eamon said the Hawking Family became friends and a connection developed with the project but people do get displaced.
Jessie said one of the video store owners she interviewed was so well-liked by his customers that some volunteered to keep the store open while he went out cleaning to earn enough to keep the store afloat.
Unfortunately, the store eventually had to close. Many people say they regret stores closing and miss them after they have gone but don’t patronise them to keep them viable.
Another audience member volunteered her story. She lived and worked in a local shopping strip and most of the business owners were Holocaust survivorsand WW2 migrants.
They frequented shops where they could be understood, where people spoke their language and knew their culture – Jewish shops, Romanian, Polish, Scottish.
Everyone knew each other – it was a community for new migrants.
She worked in a milkbar in Malvern in the 70s, so did her sisters. The downside was she couldn’t ‘buy cigs on the sly’ because they knew her parents.
She recalled how milkbars were referred to by their stock: a Peter’s milkbar, a Streets’ milkbar even one referred to as the weird guy you wouldn’t visit – especially on your own!
It was a night for confessions.
A man in the audience said he attended Mt Scopus College and with the help of milkbar in Armadale, he started a profitable enterprise.
He and his mates bought lollies at one price and then sold them for an inflated price from his school locker. He raised money for bands like Sky Hooks to visit and play at lunchtime concerts at school. Chocolate buttons and snakes were the most popular lollies!
When Libbi asked did Netflix and other digital technology kill video and going to the movies there was a muted response.
A man suggested that it is a change in culture and we are distancing ourselves from our neighbours so don’t blame technology because we take it up – it is a choice.
Years ago, on hot nights people sat in front gardens or on verandahs and talked to each other. Pre-television they went for walks and talked to each other.
Fences have become increasingly higher built between properties. First tall fences then security gates, even on unremarkable houses that would not be immediate targets for thieves.
A woman said that times may be changing again because of rules in some of the new estates in places like Pakenham, no front fences are allowed and side fences must be a certain height. Different councils have different rules.
DO YOU KNOW YOUR NEIGHBOURS?
Sadly, many people don’t know their neighbours citing new development, ageing and the movement and shifting of the population as reasons.
A woman who grew up behind a fruit shop said someone should do a story on the demise and change of fruit shops.
Libbi asked if she was a Cincotta and the woman said, yes. Her family owned businesses in East Malvern, Murrumbeena and Hughesdale.
Fruit shops have been absorbed into supermarkets and the trade absorbed by multi-nationals and the changing trends like organic fruit and vegetables – all big business nowadays.
Has Cafe Culture replaced the Milkbar’s Role?
There is a strong cafe culture today and it is a parallel culture to the old milkbars with regular customers. The cafes are often on street corners, many developed from converted milk bars.
They are a modern social hub. For example, in Northcote, the milkbar on the corner is now a cafe – it’s about loyalty.
An Inkerman Street milkbar taken over by a cafe. They kept the name and signage, use old fashioned china crockery – a contributor to future nostalgia.
In milkbars, relationships were built and they were a meeting place for people in the neighbourhood – many cafes fulfil a similar role – providing familiarity and friendship.
Glen Eira Town Hall
The evening had to end but people were reluctant to leave and as Libbi thanked the panels and organisers she pointed out how important a community hub is to keep the spirit of community alive and to help people belong and feel part of a place.
These events Glen Eira put on don’t cost a lot, you feel comfortable, you’ve been with people and interacted in a meaningful way, and because it is local there is little or no travelling time…
We were all given a paper bag of mixed lollies on the way out … the reminiscing, the discussion, the relaxing warmth …
The evening proved we do yearn to share stories of the past and Nostalgia and the ‘Burbs a great success!
Well done Glen Eira Council!
If you have a story of a milk bar or other local business please share it – I have a list of stories I can write or add detail to ones already written to include milkbars:
I tasted my first Choc Wedge at a milk bar in Croydon 1962
My first trip alone on a bicycle was to the local milk bar in Croydon 1963
On Saturday, I went to the matinee session of the Mordialloc Theatre Company’s latest play at the Shirley Burke Theatre, Parkdale.
My theatre buddy, Lisa cancelled because of ill-health but I am glad I didn’t let that or the wintry weather, which caused sudden and severe squalls, to convince me to stay at home in the warmth – although it was tempting!
Now I’m ‘retired’ it is easier to stay at home, especially in winter and by the demographics I’ve observed who support the MTC and the smattering of empty seats on Saturday, the cold weather and perhaps the lethargy of age took its toll, which is a pity.
The play was enjoyable, the ambience in the theatre welcoming, and you get free coffee/tea and biscuits at the interval.
In fact, if so inclined you can buy a glass of wine or sherry before the play starts. Saturday definitely, chilly so I’m not surprised many people took that option.
See this play and support your local theatre
Mr Bailey’s Minder is on until the end of the week!
Of the three productions I’ve seen this year, this definitely gets a thumbs up from me and considering the response of the audience, others also agree.
Maybe it is because this is the first one this year by an Australian playwright and so the actors didn’t have fake American or Canadian accents.
Maybe it’s because I can relate more to the themes which are not only current and relevant but emotionally engaging.
Maybe it’s because of the actors – apart from a bit of nervousness at the beginning, their interactions were believable and entertaining.
This is the promo blurb:
However, discussing the play at the interval with one of the volunteers another lady joined the conversation and when I said the subject matter was interesting and topical she said, ‘Ah yes, elder abuse.’
A reflection perhaps because we are in the middle of a Royal Commission into how we treat people in Aged Care and there are stories galore about abuse in the media.
But Mr Bailey’s Minder is much more than a story about someone growing old and being mistreated or fearing mistreatment.
All the major characters in the play have fears and emotional scars – not just Mr Bailey.
We are all ageing or know someone who is and if we live long enough must face declining health and death.
We all have or will have a life to reflect on with good and bad decisions, successful or unsuccessful relationships, haunting memories of the warm glow kind or filled with regret.
Many of us have had experience with someone in the family coping with alcoholism and/or dementia and family estrangement is common too.
The play mines a rich field of life experiences.
Therese, as the title suggests, is the ‘Minder’ or carer, and frequently, takes centre stage. Her story, one of a need to belong and be valued – and to value herself – a contrast to Leo’s life of celebrity status where being a ‘famous artist’ resulted in Leo overvaluing himself! (as others did too!)
Leo Bailey (Eric Hayes) is a drunken ‘has-been’ artist suffering from decades of alcohol abuse and self-indulgent misbehaviour. He’s offended, hurt or neglected friends, several ex-wives and all but one of his children. His past is confronting – what he can remember of it, or how he remembers it, which varies depending on his mood or awareness.
Now he is facing death – and he is astute enough to know it will probably be alone. He must also cope with the realisation that he’s lost some of his artistic abilities yet boasts how valuable his signature still is – even on a blank piece of paper (be intrigued).
Only his daughter, Margo (Juliet Hayday) continues to visit him and manage his affairs, despite being subjected to a barrage of abuse every time she steps into Leo’s home.
Margo has remained dutiful although she can’t escape the bitterness of unhappy memories of childhood spoilt by her celebrity father’s behaviour.
In the opening scene, the much-maligned Margo meets Therese (Julia Landberg), a young woman desperate for work and the latest in a long list of Leo Bailey’s minders.
We learn how ill Leo is, about his obnoxious behaviour, plus how dementia has heightened his disagreeableness.
Margo who works in investment banking does not ‘pull any punches’ regarding her father. In fact, she repeats the well-worn cliches –
Old people abandoned in nursing homes must look no further than their own past behaviour.
Abusive drunks reveal their true self – it’s never just the drink talking.
Adults must take responsibility for their behaviour whether they’re a celebrity or not
Therese, cagey about her past, is worried Margo will check her references. She doesn’t expect to get the job, yet in her desperation behaves alternately, belligerent and defensive. She is feisty and a survivor.
Leo comes downstairs, he is at his alcohol-sodden best, insulting Margo and Therese and accusing them of wanting to take his home and independence.
Disagreeable is an understatement.
(Interestingly, “Leo’s” lines or actions alternated between outrageous, wily astuteness and downright insulting, but a group in the audience loudly appreciated Eric’s performance – indicative that the actor who is a Life member of MTC has a following!)
The final major player to add to the emotionally scarred cast appears later.
Karl (Aaron Townley) a tradie who comes to remove a mural and repair a wall. His life is as difficult and broken as the others. He’s paying off a debt caused by an ex-business partner and recovering from a marriage breakdown caused by same debt.
Needy and lonely, Karl continues to visit to do odd jobs after establishing a friendship with Leo and Therese who manages to get her charge to give up drinking and begin to make amends to those he has mistreated by writing letters of apology. They even start going out and visiting parks and museums.
Of course, there are sub-plots and a minor character (also played by Aaron) who will make your blood boil and an all-important twist that good drama provides.
The necessary conflict to keep an audience interested is delivered – with a couple of realistic physical scenes, which had me worried because Eric wasn’t using make-up to age!
Each character also revealed an inner conflict through actions or dialogue at some stage.
The Playwright, Debra Oswald.
Wikipedia tells us that Debra Oswald is a screenwriter, playwright and fiction author. She was the co-creator and head writer for series 1-5 of the award-winning Channel Ten series Offspring…
Mr Bailey’s Minder and The Peach Season both premiered at Griffin Theatre Company. Mr Bailey’s Minder toured nationally in 2006 and premiered in the United States in 2008 at The Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia.
When it was first released, a review said, the play
… grapples with how much latitude we’re prepared to give artists we consider to be blessed with some kind of genius. It also explores the separate journeys of three individuals committed to creating a place where they can belong.
The play may also promote discussion about past behaviour and caring for ageing parents whether they were celebrities or not.
The worship of celebrity, of course, seems to have intensified in recent years. A prime example is in the acting profession where TV creates celebrities frequently, with actors who study the craft and perform on stage often overlooked or not given the recognition, they may deserve.
In this social media age celebrities flourish, however, in the future they may pay the price for their behaviour much earlier or burn out quicker.
The publicity social media gives that makes it easier to make celebrity status, also makes it easier to punish or shatter a celebrity. And with the Internet – everything is on record whether it has been edited, doctored, embellished, made up…
Plus we have an ageing population. Debra’s play will remain topical and relevant for some time.
Stagecraft and Set Design
The set design and construction depicting Bailey’s disintegrating home above Sydney Harbour is eye-catching and memorable. Martin Gibbs, the Director and set designer is to be congratulated.
The various scene changes facilitated seamlessly by three exits – a door through to a kitchenette, the ‘front’ door and a staircase that led to the bedrooms and much-mentioned bathroom. The music accompanying each scene change setting the relevant mood and the lighting used to great effect to signal the passing of time and a new day.
So, add a bit of spice or emotional angst to your day and catch a session of Mr Bailey’s Minder you won’t be disappointed and it will do what all good art does – make you confront various aspects of the human condition – especially your own.
A note of caution – if like me, you have experienced a loved one whose personality changed because of dementia, ageing, or a combination of both, or have experienced family estrangement, make sure you have a tissue in your pocket… you never know what triggers an emotional moment… this play just might hit the spot.
I’m on holiday from classes until July 30th and in my FB feed the Scottish Poetry Library announced June 26th 2019 as ‘International Writing Day’ with a link to https://www.nationalwritingday.org.uk/
Whether international or national – it is wonderful to have a writing day and that’s what I did, sharing Wednesday with a dear friend first met through the Mordialloc Writers’ Group.
Sitting at the kitchen table, we talked about writing goals and then wrote some poetry.
We both had discovered old notebooks containing poems written years ago and discussed how many versions need to be written to ‘get it right’ – and how it never is!
Have we improved or were those early words better? Did the words come easier then? What makes a ‘good’ poem?
We both agreed that in some cases, our poems recorded life and how we felt – a bit like journalling and many poems reminded us of past events we’d forgotten.
Other poems explored language, exercised our imagination, captured a moment or were a bit of fun …
Searching for Words and Meaning…
In writing class
we explore language
seek living words
sentencing each other
to work it out
or perhaps not
just listen, absorb and be
explore the language
search for words
taught in childhood
read in books
overheard on the train…
volume doesn’t matter
one sentence or two
from me or you
research for a living
search for meaning
out-search a life
writing in class…
Port Campbell Sunset With Mary Jane
Mairi Neil, 1995
We stand together to watch the sun go down
sharing a marvellous miracle –
the silvery-white ball now a shade of pink,
a glowing mandarin, yellow tint, then red
and settling seagulls strutting by the water
appear to blush, blending with the foaming tide
flowing in with a rush
The fiery sphere radiates brilliant orange
colour spreads across the sky, the orb starts to
This forehead and eyebrows of a sleepy giant
Until suddenly, the sky explodes aflame
our hearts pound
the sky astounds
The sun a misshapen balloon
A semi-darkened sky of colourful pools, puddles,
mere splashes mid-air
Was that brilliant display ever really there?
A Note To Kingston Council
Mairi Neil, 1999
(responding to a report in the newspaper of a resident weeping as a gum tree aged 100 years old was chopped down to make way for new development)
A concerned citizen stood weeping
wringing her hands in despair
but the chainsaws grind and gobble
so another block’s laid bare
gum trees go that once grew tall
shading homes for a hundred years
those living links to the past
chopped down despite her pleas
Eucalyptus gums are indigenous
native grasses and bushes too
home to a thousand insect species
and native birds becoming so few
where one house stood in a garden
two units are built – or more
imported trees, shrubs in fancy tubs
surrounded by a concrete pour
Developers have their dreams
And indigenous trees get in the way
‘Clear the land of all vegetation –
especially big trees,’ what they say!
Bulldozing through regulations
and done with unseemly speed
‘We own the land now and have rights,’
but neighbours see only greed.
Some developers say they deserve thanks
After all, they’ve ‘improved’ the land
sanitised lawns introduced boutique trees
concreted paths added buildings grand!
Individual rights must be paramount
because the ‘ME’ mentality rules
environmentalists caring for community
are soft-hearted, irrelevant fools.
Who cares about rangy, old gums
that provided shade and privacy too
Who cares about a balanced ecosystem
and that birds and butterflies are few?
If YOU care about what is happening
In community streets and suburbs
Then speak up, get involved, write letters –
and counteract the Real Estate blurbs!
Mairi Neil, 1996
A winter’s morn
white mist hides the sun
birds twitter unseen
Was it the coldest night?
A walk to the station
familiar path unseen
cold air, chilled bones
a bleak beginning
to another day of toil
At the railway station
commuters huddle in silence
but aboard in warmth a thaw
familiar faces smile greetings
cheerful chatter melts winter blues
The World Loves PowerPoint
Mairi Neil, 1996.
I got a CDRom to make an interactive PPP
this multimedia task completely confounds me
I sit with mouth agape marvelling at the show
from Encarta ’96 – so much I don’t yet know
I don’t know how computers work
the science and technology a wonder
the subliminal flickering of the cursor
disappears off screen – oh, my blunder?
Clicks and movement directs this brain
finger muscles used again and again
activating programs seems a breeze
but this technology can be a tease
my hands don’t appear to accept the hype
as on the keyboard they stumble to type
and repeat out-dated typewriting rules
trying grammar and spelling used at school
I got a CDRom to make an interactive PPP
This multimedia task completely confounds me
Bill Gates and Microsoft what have you started –
my confidence and sanity swiftly departed!
A Winter Walk in Woodland
Mairi Neil, 1997
The winter day cold but not drear
unusually, warm for this time of year
we choose a walk through the woods
and frost-hardened leaves crack
the path piled with fallen snow
our boots stain the pristine track
Children run ahead to climb steep hills
curbing their enthusiasm a battle of wills
they’re keen to explore and with innocence
embrace the wild creatures in this place
but most are hiding, nowhere to be seen
hibernating while of summer they dream.
The children lament the ‘waterfall’ too small
a mere trickle of water, no cascade at all
plus modern development is eating the wood
motorway and shops gobble habitat for good
landscapes changed, altered beyond repair
rivers dried – the trees weep in despair
At an old canal, hopeful enthusiast rebuild
boxes to protect dormice with optimism filled
Mother Nature resilient, she can adapt and adjust
but nurturing people’s help a definite must
tiny snowdrops gleam – such a welcome sight
of unspoilt beauty to hold in memory tight.
I Never Thought
Mairi Neil, 1998
When we first met
I never thought
we would lie side by side
in a large comfortable bed
and not drown in passion
maturity and familiarity
take their toll
Our bodies still tingle
when hands caress
but we have grown
comfortable and content
seeking thrills less often
It is enough to know
desire and satisfaction
I never thought
we would lie side by side
and talk of mundane matters…
doors to be painted
garden beds to be weeded
leaky taps to be fixed
seams to be mended…
yet we do not rush
to start a project
or worry a task
It is enough to know
there is tomorrow
I never thought
spending a morning
with you puzzling to solve
a cryptic crossword
and I puzzling to
write a poem
would create a warm inner glow
provide contentment and pleasure
Our past… and imagined future
flows easily between us
Our love has a comfortable silence
as well as public vows
It is enough to know that you are here.
I Love Cooking (after Dr Seuss)
I love cooking, I love the smell
I love it more when it turns out swell
I love old recipes, they are the best
I gather ingredients and begin with zest.
I love my oven, it’s electric. If it was gas I’d be sick.
I love my bench top, granite and wide, equipment sits side by side.
I think my cooking is okay, there’s not much more I can say.
I’m not an expert like some boast, I’ve been known to burn the toast!
There’s people who just love their food, always categorising, bad or good.
I eat to live, variety’s not king, a few favourite recipes are my thing.
I’m happy to bake my apple cake. I am.
Can even manage scones, cream and jam.
I love to peel, dice, chop and knead.
It’s from cleaning up I want to be freed.
I love cooking – it’s a necessary evil – we have to eat.
But boy I’m glad – really glad – Nandos has opened up the street
Lee had written about her childhood half a century ago, the friendship with the owners and staff at Pellegrini’s, memories of being a migrant in Melbourne, and of her mother taking her regularly to this Italian restaurant for pasta and other familiar delicacies reminiscent of a Europe they’d left behind.
Our lunch date would begin by meeting ‘under the clocks at Flinders Street Station,’ a place, where I’m sure almost every Melburnian this century and most of last century, has used as a meeting place at one time or other.
Flinders Street Station, an iconic building holding many stories within its walls and parts of the interior, especially the upper floor Ballroom – a place everyone wanted to see when I first volunteered for Open House Melbourne a decade ago because like other sites during the last weekend in July, the public rarely have access.
My lunch date story a salutary lesson to not delay plans because we never know what is around the corner and often don’t appreciate a person or place until they’re gone, which is a nice segue into a story about the heritage restoration of Flinders Street Station…
Alas, as mentioned, parts have been closed off to the public for many years because lack of proper maintenance made some of the building unsafe and until final restoration work is done (an expensive, time-consuming process) it may be many more years before the whole building is restored to its original glory.
The Restoration of Flinders Street Station
On May 29, I attended a free seminar in the Victorian Parliamentary Library by heritage architecture expert, Peter Lovell, on the Restoration of Flinders Street Station. Peter’s talk and the venue fascinating.
Access to the parliamentary South Library was appreciated, a place I’d only seen in passing, while on a quick tour of Parliament House, during the Centenary of the Women’s Petition for the vote.
The Victorian Parliament Building also a Melbourne icon and although it has received more maintenance attention than Flinders Street Station, the restoration process is drawn out for this building too.
The day of Peter’s talk wintry with intermittent heavy showers and a biting wind, which probably explains why not all those who booked turned up, despite repeated emails to advise if ‘no show’ because there was a ‘waiting list’.
Peter also advised to allow twenty minutes to ‘go through security at the front entrance’ but there would be ‘a welcome desk in the vestibule’.
I arrived five not twenty minutes early because of unavoidable delays on the Frankston Train Line. (ah, the irony!)
My demeanour must have registered panic because the young woman on security duty said, ‘Take your time, calm down,’ as I fumbled to show the email with the details of the event, and get out my mobile phone and perfume – two items on a ‘must show’ list.
The security process reminiscent of airport security and sadly a sign of the times and upgrading the old building to accommodate new security technology a priority. How you do that in keeping with nineteenth-century architecture and expectations of access from the general public, no easy task.
Hurrying, and feeling guilty about being late I dropped my handbag, partially spilt the contents on the ground and held up a queue of others also wanting to enter via the public entrance of Parliament House. (Murphy’s Law obviously working and I could hear my wee Irish Mum’s voice, ‘more haste less speed’…)
Not a great start to the event!
Fortunately, the promised Welcome Desk was indeed welcoming and despite the tone of the emails suggesting non-negotiable punctuality, a friendly, and chatty attendant escorted me to the Library where I had a good fifteen minutes to feast on my surroundings and relax by eyeing off the floor to ceiling shelves!
The books eleven shelves high above a bench with two shelves below, so no wonder there was a ladder leaning against the wall and the top two shelves empty.
My imagination kicked in, reminding me of that scene in The Mummy with a chain reaction of crashing shelves in the Cairo Library because the librarian over-reaches, wobbles on the ladder and the shelves of books fall like dominoes.
The sign for the seminar read Foundations – Architecture with influence – Flinders Street Restoration Project and then my eyes wandered to a variety of books, their titles almost jumping out at me:
A coffee table-sized, Unemployable
Blair – a thick hardback
A big blue tome titled, Australian Poetry
Another hardback, Paul Kelly
A hardback book of Cycling on an easily accessible bottom shelf…
Brought back to reality the guest speaker was introduced by Caroline, the Parliamentary Librarian…
Restoring Heritage Buildings A Specialist Field
I sat in the front row ‘all the better to hear’ the talk by the chief architect of the firm responsible for restoring the outside of iconic Flinders Street Railway Station. The seminar was the third of a three-part series on Architecture Restoration of Significance, the analysis and reuse of older buildings.
Peter’s firm specialising in Heritage – he surveyed Parliament House – furniture, fittings and the building – ascertained its conservation status and how to retain the important historical aspects and ensure it can function in the modern era before major renovations occurred.
ready for speech in Great hall
Peace and prosperity mural
statue of Queen Victoria in great hall
Red velvet chair
leather sofa in entrance hall
door handles restored
His resume is impressive: recently the Windsor Hotel, Princess Theatre, Palais St Kilda and the State Library; also the Essendon Airport Control Tower, Wilson Hall Melbourne University, Melbourne Laneways, Sidney Myer Music Bowl and now Flinders Street Station.
Many important landmarks since European settlement that are valued by the public have received Peter’s attention to detail and extensive research to ensure what can be restored is done so to enrich our history and heritage.
All good presenters put their audience at ease and Peter was no exception, jokingly referring to the current series on SBS Great British Railway Journeys introduced by ex-Tory politician Michael Portillo.
Peter apologised for the absence of a bright jacket to show off his knowledge of railway history! (Portillo’s signature dress code is an outlandish colourful blazer and each series he works his way through the colours of the rainbow.)
This led Peter into a segue on the various colours of the paintwork of Flinders Street Station. The paintwork appears different during the day and night and over the years.
In the 1980s the paint colour used for Flinders Street was investigated and fashion consultants of the day said the colour chosen was ‘awful‘.
Now, 30 years since that paint exploration, the current restoration began and the paint colour harks back to the original colour scheme.
The initial investigation revealed a failure of the fabric externally with extensive structural cracking. When the project began, the Christchurch earthquake had just happened therefore the Government’s main concern was the stability of the building.
There was an update of the Conservation Management Plan and the significance of this was what could or could not be changed.
The track level and platforms and range of shops along Flinders Street – all spaces were analysed. The ceilings contained the largest collection of press metal work in Australia.
Flinders Street Station
… is of National social, architectural, aesthetic and technical significance as one of the landmark buildings of Melbourne…possibly the most well known and heavily used public building in Melbourne…providing an imposing entry and exit point for thousands of travellers every day of the year…
The platforms, the ramps, stairs, subways and concourse, have been used by millions of commuters since 1910. Except for unsympathetic alterations to the ramps up to Swanston Street made in 1983, all these elements are intact and considered an integral part of Melbourne’s historic character. Even minor details, such as the ‘do not spit’ signs, the large mirror on the ladies toilets off the Elizabeth Street subway and the original timber signboards, are widely known and enjoyed.
The steps of the main arch facing into the city became a convenient and popular meeting point known as “under the clocks” and is still popular today. While the opening of the city loop in 1980 has reduced the dominant role of the station, it is still an important destination and meeting point.
As a large and imposing public building located at the major symbolic gateway into the city, on one of the most important intersections, it is a familiar and well loved landmark, and the view of the building from Flinders Street has become one of the most photographed and instantly recognisable images of Melbourne.
Heritage Council, Victoria, 2008
In 2017, while volunteering for Open House Melbourne at the Nicholson Building, I got a great bird’s eye view of the preparations to paint and restore Flinder Street Station.
Who designed Flinders Street?
The railway architect, Mr James Fawcett, and railway engineer, HP Ashworth won a competition to design a railway station for Melbourne. Fawcett, according to Peter was a ‘one horse wonder’ because he doesn’t design anything else major as an architect. Flinders Street Station is broadly Edwardian Free Style, the main building is strongly influenced by French public architecture of the 1900s, and is the only such example in Melbourne.
Fawcett was a watercolour painter of some renown – check out the Fawcett Collection at the State Library. He also designed Woodlands Homestead, a prefabricated house and was ‘a run-of-the-mill domestic architect of conventional Edwardian bungalows‘.
However, a number of suburban and country railway stations were probably also designed by Fawcett & Ashworth, such as Glenferrie, Essendon and Caulfield because they were built between 1900 and early 1920s and employ a similar, but far less elaborate, architectural style.
Peter showed slides of some old paintings of Flinders Street as a tiny train station in early Melbourne. Other paintings showed the historical development and the station growing to have original platforms and the Degraves Street stop.
In 1899, the government held a competition to design Flinders Street and Fawcett, an employee won so there was a suggestion it was ‘an inside job’.
This was the period of the famous Thomas Bent MP, later Premier of Victoria (seen as corrupt in some people’s eyes and referred to as ‘bent by name and bent by nature’…) Bent was certainly a colourful character and left a much-talked-about legacy especially regarding the railways. There are stories about him in two of Mordialloc Writers’ Group anthologies! (Scandalous Bayside, 2008; Off The Rails, 2012.)
Fawcett invested in art architecture, he liked innovation. In the original design, the train halls were supposed to be covered and go East-West like London’s. However, cost-cutting meant covered train halls abandoned and their direction changed to North-South.
A large multiple-arch iron roof over the platforms, with an enormous glass wall facing the river, was never built. This aspect of the design was in the manner of the grand European and English railway stations, except that the arches were to have been across the platforms, rather than along.
It was a grand design though and the fourth floor was to be commercial offices – and whether these offices should be private businesses or only for government and the railway was a bone of contention. (Nothing new there politicians still argue over commercial versus public use and profit and investment, financial return …)
The station was not completed until 1910but built for commuters and had shops, canteen for workers, cafes, even a childcare centre… ahead of its time …
The office portion of the station is of social and historical significance for having incorporated extensive and heavily used public facilities. Large and convenient public toilets for women were provided at a time when such facilities were rare.
Apparently, in the 1920s it was the busiest railway station in the world. A claim with no mention of what other stations were considered for that honour and whether it encompassed a Eurocentric world view, Southern Hemisphere or included Asia!
Extensive facilities provided for the Victorian Railways Institute, which catered to the thousands of employees of the railways, as well as their families and friends. Located on the top floor, the Institute’s rooms included a Concert Hall under the main dome, a library, two classrooms and a gymnasium, a billiard room and a lecture hall at the Elizabeth Street end, which was converted to a Ballroom circa 1930.
Many of these facilities were available for hire by outside organisations and by the 1950s Flinders Street Station was home to 120 cultural social and sporting organisations, such as cat lovers, rose devotees, talented debaters and poetry lovers. This function continued until the Institute moved out in 1984.
I can remember attending the first Train Travellers Association meetings on the top floor in the late 1970s. These were the days of the old ‘red rattlers’, the Tait trains with their wooden panelling examples of Fawcett’s design work.
Carriages had leather straps hanging from the ceiling for standing passengers and too few seats catering for the postwar population explosion increasing the number of commuters travelling into the city each day.
Sadly, at the time I didn’t appreciate the heritage aspects of the upper floors!
The Train Travellers Association born out of the frustration and anger of commuters and guest speakers included Jim Fraser, Secretary of the Victorian Branch of the Railways Union (ARU) and the Shadow Transport Minister Steve Crabb.
They talked about their ideas on how to improve the Railways system, which had been badly neglected by various Liberal Governments who harboured a dream to sell the network off – one finally achieved by Jeff Kennett in 1992.
There is no doubt that Flinders Street Railway Station was a major, stupendous building on its completion in 1910 and it still looks grand and impressive today.
A drawing of Melbourne in 1838 depicts Elizabeth Street as a creek, this is incorrect but because of the proximity of the River Yarra, Flinders Street Station buildings are on variable foundations and there was a creek flowing into the Yarra River. The proximity of the foundations to water provided challenges!
Flinders Street is basically a brick building but has attached timber elements. The timber wall cantilevered off the brick section. The timber tended to tip from the building. The original construction fraught with delays and difficulties over a decade, and scandals about incompetence led to a Royal Commission.
The base built of basalt and granite and the timber lining supported by load-bearing brick. It should have been a brick and sandstone exterior but the cost meant that was abandoned for bricked stucco.
A survey in 2015, despite budget constraints, demanded urgent repair work. There was major cracking on the roof and in some walls, people could be killed below if bricks dislodged. An inspection revealed the major culprit – blocked downpipes and a roof that had leaked for 30 years!
If only proper maintenance had been carried out at the time… I heard my Mum’s voice again, ‘a stitch in time saves nine’.
Restoration Complex and Costly
The roof was intricate, a mixture of concrete, copper, corrugated iron – there were leaks everywhere, flashings buckled. Water damaged interiors could have been avoided and the cost of restoration halved if drains had been cleaned!
Internal work still has to be done and the slides Peter showed of the horrendous damage to the Ballroom/gymnasium, which had been used into the 1970s drew a collective gasp of horror from the audience. Timber rotted from neglect, decorative plaster ruined.
However, often it is not easy for any authority to argue for money for renovations if the public or even a small group with loud voices or influence consider it ‘a waste of time’ or ‘money is needed elsewhere’… but as every homeowner knows, you must look after your assets and budget for maintenance!
A scaffolding survey documented the process needed to restore the building and this was at ground level first so the estimate was $23 million. However, this cost blew out to $70 million when they discovered the damage to the roof and upper floors and walls.
The use of pressed metal, which includes ceilings in most office areas (in a huge variety of designs) as well as dados and friezes in some, is the most extensive in Victoria and the red painted, block fronted wall facing the platforms is the largest example of zinc cladding known in Australia.
After Christchurch, governments accept the earthquake threat is real and any major renovations or new buildings must acknowledge this threat. Initially, at Flinders Street, they planned to anchor the tower with tensile rods but it was not feasible to drill into the brickwork to anchor the building – this was deemed too disruptive and invasive. And not doable because of cavities in the brickwork.
Ingenuity and good tradespeople meant they found a way of reinforcing the roof structure. There were concrete slabs relied upon to hold the building together. The water damage and corrosion needed a new structural slab and waterproofing.
Before removal of the concrete slab, they built a bracing system to earthquake-proof the building. Seismic issues for old buildings are massive. All chimneys had to be braced – it doesn’t look elegant but the area is not accessible to the public and safety trumps elegance!
How to deal and manage risks without disrupting the running of the railways or putting commuters and the general public in danger?
A lot of the work was carried out at night where there was a three-hour opening of no train traffic! There were thousands of people involved in the project yet it was completed while the railways still operated.
The rail corridor a busy place and if a train stopped on the system it costs $50,000 an hour, therefore, they couldn’t afford to stop trains running.
Restoring the Clock Tower
The clock tower and the front steps are probably the most photographed parts of Flinders Street Station. Many of the marriages at St Paul’s on the diagonal corner make sure the station is in the background, the time of their wedding visible on the clock!
Restoring the clock tower the most challenging, requiring enormous anchoring and bracing. They used metal braces but kept the clock structure by inserting a concrete base/brace to anchor the tower. An extraordinary feat of engineering and architectural knitting of braces to the building.
The clock face had putty containing asbestos and they couldn’t salvage or reuse the glass. However, they sourced oval glass from Mexico after a worldwide search. The face is all laminated so it will not fall into the street.
Removing all the asbestos was a major challenge.
The zinc used in the pressed metal work was in good condition but it was a major campaign to restore where water had caused deformities. The repairs to the wall will now last for another 100 years.
Repointing the brickwork an exercise in patience and craftsmanship.
The use of red brick contrasted with coloured cement render, the use of banking (especially in the tower), and the grouping of windows vertically under tall arches shows the influence of American Romanesque Revival.
Salt coming through the brickwork ignored for too long and you can see the white stains. Despite several efforts, they still can’t remove the marks without major damage to bricks so abandoned the idea.
There was lots of exploration about various methods of repair, plenty of trial and error because it was heritage restoration and they were not replacing everything. the brief is to keep as much of the original as possible!
During the restoration they unravelled issues, in many cases, it was a discovery process but there was a great team of builders, engineers and tradespeople.
They didn’t put graffiti coating on the paintwork because it would be too costly to keep replacing. The building has had eight or nine paintings over the years but original paint not good and streaked within seven years.
The building has always been painted the same combination of colours – creamy yellow, red south walls, green for windows.
Lead paint was an issue too. It had to be stripped off in a controlled environment or the decision made to leave as is and paint over.
South wall the best in the whole building.
There was a beautifully designed heating system, hydronic radiators but all pipes were covered in asbestos. They couldn’t risk removal or repair so cut off the radiators and sealed them to avoid asbestos drifting into Flinders Street and the Station via the vents.
The dangers of asbestos and working how to remove it safely is an issue for whoever renovates the interior.
Lighting improved colours – the interior of the dome was beautiful when cleaned. In the Ballroom, they stripped off the plasterwork and discovered pressed metal ceiling. They inserted a steel structure to seismic-proof the building but little interior work completed – that’s for the next stage of the project.
Cracked balusters a badly seismic issue for tipping – rubber mouldy and new balusters made and pinned. Water penetrated through massive cornices.
They put in lead capping to conserve it although not these originally but had to rebuild moulding.
The stained glass magnificent designed by Fawcett because he was interested in art nouveau. Only modest replacements and it is hard to pick new panels, the rest were basically cleaned and conserved.
Refreshment rooms have glorious windows which needed epoxy repairs only – on the first floor – not accessible yet.
They were conscious that restoring the outside is only stage one and so they needed a storeroom because nothing that was removed was thrown out.
They even kept items left behind by workers over the years: 1950s watches, hats and other curios. These are stored alongside ornamental plasterwork from the Ballroom. Each item labelled and stored.
Caroline gave me a special tour of the library at the end of Peter’s talk when I said it was my first visit. I loved the spiral staircase, the polished wooden doors, the magnificent ceiling and chandelier and ornamental work on columns and cornices –
Caroline answered my many questions and showed me the Reading Room, explained how one of the columns cleverly disguised the chimney for the fireplace and told me the pet name (which I have forgotten) they use for the plaster lion saved from a previous renovation.
It was an informative and friendly afternoon. History and heritage two of my loves and Caroline invited me back – an offer I hope to take up sooner rather than later!
On the way out, I passed students in the hall and thought how lucky they were to have a tour – I was an adult before I ventured inside the parliament building and have spent more time on the steps demonstrating than wandering inside!
But as I walked past the portraits of premiers I stopped beside my favourite – Joan Kirner – the artist has caught her twinkling eyes and her over-riding quality of kindness.
Six Degrees of Separation
Joan was a trailblazer for women’s rights and started her public life as an activist in the Croydon area in the 60s. I attended Croydon High and my mother admired Joan, greatly. Joan later became President of the Victorian Federation of State School Parents Clubs and later still the first female Premier of Victoria!
As I wandered into the foyer still reminiscing, I bumped into two other activist friends for women’s rights. Both were past speakers for the Union of Australian Women’s Southern Branch: Fiona McCormack then CEO of Domestic Violence Victoria but now the new Victims of Crime Commissioner for Victoria and Robyn Dale, Office Manager for Nick Staikos, MP for Bentleigh.
Fiona is the daughter-in-law of a longtime, dear friend; Robyn’s son, Tim went to school with my daughter, Anne and Robyn’s boss, Nick Staiko is also President of Godfrey Street Community House where I taught creative writing for seven years!
Another first added when I visited the Dining Room in Parliament House and shared a cuppa! Of course, we talked about politics and women’s rights…
Many local councils and state governments acknowledge there is a crisis, even if our Federal Government doesn’t.
We have created havoc by over-consumption and disregarding how to responsibly dispose of man-made materials like plastics, radioactive waste and other byproducts of industrialisation and general pollution.
How can an individual help repair the damage to the environment?
The slogan developed years ago for tourists – take only photos and leave only footprints – should be expanded and applied to our everyday life.
Some communities are running out of places to safely put landfill and countries that bought our rubbish (yep – we exported our trash to China and Malaysia among others!) recognise this practice is not good for their populations.
Australia and the U.S.A as the biggest culprits in this region have been forced to rethink and find other solutions.
More than ever there is pressure for citizens to be more pro-active about reducing waste and also to recycle, reuse and repurpose.
Consumers have demanded plastic bag free supermarkets, returnable deposit cans and bottles, no more plastic straws, refillable cups and most of all reduced packaging – and gradually the corporate world is responding.
There is always more to do…
I live in the City of Kingston and am grateful we have a recycling program and they are looking at ways to not only improve services to citizens but educate people on how to reduce their rubbish.
Currently, I pay rates for three rubbish bins: one for recycling of glass, tins, cardboard, paper and some plastics, one for recycling green waste – grass clippings, weeds and small tree branches, and one for general rubbish that goes into landfill.
Can We Recycle More Efficiently?
I was thrilled that Kingston Council is helping citizens learn the alternatives to filling garbage bins.
In the near future, they are trialling an organic food collection, which may happen once a week – and be introduced in January 2020. For progress check the ‘Waste” page on the City of Kingston website and Back to Earth videos explaining the programme.
This new food bin will be a compost bin and it will go to a commercial facility with a 5 day turn around and sent to farmers to fertilise their land.
Contamination will be a huge issue and so the Council aims to have an intensive education program for citizens.
They have chosen this path rather than a compost hub except for access by community gardens.
You Can Be Pro-Active Now
An alternative that can be done immediately is to start your own compost at home and there will be no need to have Council collect your food scraps!
I took advantage of one of the free workshops being run to encourage people to recycle their food waste at home and turn it into compost.
I hope to spend more time in the garden and aim to create a more productive veggie patch and more flowers and want to make my own good quality compost.
Any gardener will tell you great outcomes begin with the quality of the soil – and the best soil is obtained from compost.
Plants grown in healthy soil have fewer problems with disease and pests – and that goes for vegetables as well as flowers.
Good soil contains organic matter – worm castings, decomposed leaves and remains of organisms such as insects, fungi, and bacteria. Replenishing organic matter essential – and what better way than to use your own compost.
Free: Beginners Composting, Worm Farming and Bokashi Workshop
Last Tuesday evening, I attended a workshop on Composting – it was International Composting Awareness Week.
I didn’t know there was such a thing – did you?
The young woman presenting is a Waste Education Officer for Kingston, a consultant to many councils and her wages paid for by JJ Richards & Sons, an Australian owned and operated family business providing innovative waste management solutions throughout Australia since 1932.
It is one of the largest privately-owned waste management companies in Australia and provides recycling, sanitary and green waste collection services.
I believe they may have more or less a monopoly on garbage collection in Melbourne and also operate in other states.
Freya said she was the one leading a team in Kingston, wearing HiVis vests and shorts, who inspect the bins on recycling day. They put a good or bad sticker on the lids to encourage people to do the right thing.
They also sort through rubbish periodically to determine what education packages may be used to determine solutions to our ever-growing rubbish problem.
“If you get a Well Done sticker on your bin, leave it there to encourage others,’ said Freya. “And if you get a Warning sticker, you won’t be fined but please try and do better!”
The bin inspection program her idea, plus the use of stickers. As a multicultural city, Freya said she is aware of a lack of English language skills, which creates a barrier in the community.
Therefore, a message about what can be recycled is often misunderstood if only written in English. The stickers can be understood by everyone.
The clarity of the message will reduce costs to the Council and ratepayers.
When I was young, I remember you got money back on glass bottles and we scoured the countryside looking for abandoned empties to return and get pocket money.
For some reason (most probably someone decided it was less profitable) the practice was stopped in Victoria. I also remember when the girls were in school in the late 80s early 90s, collecting aluminium cans was popular to raise money.
In fact, it was a good fundraiser for many charities but they competed with those on a low income who trawled the rubbish bins.
Returnable deposit schemes work in other states and countries – here is a goodnatured way of encouraging recycling I snapped in the Orkneys – the bins were outside a club.
Freya has also initiated an effective School Program about recycling and composting so hopefully future generations will be more aware, if they are not already, of the fragility of the environment and the need for sustainability.
Many schools in the municipality have vegetable gardens, compost bins, water tanks, worm farms, hens… the children are aware of the importance of recycling to the environment that it becomes second nature.
When I asked about reducing the amount of hard rubbish left on nature strips by people moving out or just dumping stuff, Freya said she is trialling a program in partnership with Diabetes Australia, to pick up and recycle goods abandoned by International Students at end of semester departures and readvertise them to others arriving.
This program once established can be spread throughout Melbourne.
A friend and past student who lives in the City of Glen Eira will be extremely happy to learn this because she often lamented that her street, which has many small apartment blocks, often looks like a tip because of the high turnover of renters, who are invariably international students attending Monash University.
She often commented that much of the furniture and household goods are top quality and could be reused but are left on nature strips to be collected as rubbish.
The Cost To The Community of Dumping
The workshop I attended limited to 30 people because of the availability of space and was booked out but another one will be held on June 27.
I was pleased to see grey heads like mine but also young couples, teenagers and middle-aged – a good selection of ratepayers all wanting to learn more about recycling food waste and other organic matter.
There was a collective gasp when Freya told us that illegal dumping of rubbish was costing Kingston $203,000 per annum until she analysed the pick-ups and discovered there were three streets in Clayton South accounting for $100,000 of that figure!
Security cameras were installed and the cost reduced to $26,000 with the Clayton South area reduced to $10,000. (Whether the cost of installing and monitoring the security cameras is included, I don’t know but it is still a massive reduction!)
Freya said viewing the camera footage to get the car number plates of the culprits to issue infringement notices (and hopefully recoup some costs!) revealed awkward moments.
A truck pulled up and dumped a massive tyre but when the driver saw the camera he retrieved the tyre and drove off – not before his number plate recorded.
Another person was caught doing the toilet on a nature strip!
The car number plates showed that many of the people who dumped were from a mixture of businesses, lived out of town, and were not all locals.
Perhaps we need more provocative murals like this one I saw in Canberra above a row of bins marked for recycling – the quote says:
“Civilization ends at the waterline. Beyond that, we all enter the food chain, and not always right at the top.”Hunter S Thompson
Change Habits To Save Habitats
Bali’s beaches are drowning in litter
Debris piles where no butterflies flitter
Apocalypse fed –
but the solution is not storming Twitter
The main culprit named is plastic
a product we embraced as fantastic
but it resists decay
and won’t go away
The destruction of marine life tragic!
Fast food a convenience we craved
Marketing gurus constantly raved
Junk created ignored
As rubbish was poured
Into the environment, we should have saved.
Who profits from accumulated trash?
Is life on Earth worth less than cash?
Consumers fed lies
While pollution spreads like a rash!
What species destroys its own nest
Where standards should be the best?
‘Away’ doesn’t exist
Rubbish isn’t a mist
We create it, so must produce less!
‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ a catch cry
This must be reality or we all die
The coral withers
Our PM dithers
Climate change deniers watch Earth fry.
To the tourists who boast loving Bali –
Has your behaviour increased the tally?
Of beach debris
Polluting the sea
Leave only footprints when you dally!!
Bali’s problem is really worldwide
from culpability, no one can hide
It starts with a ‘me’
I hope becomes ‘we’
From today let’s take the Earth’s side.
Approximately 50% of the waste that goes into your garbage bin could be composted.
When sent to landfill, food and garden waste produces methane – a harmful greenhouse gas.
This waste represents 3% of Australia’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, therefore, we are all contributing to climate change.
If you compost, the environmental benefits are:
extend the life of the landfill sites
decrease greenhouse gas emissions
If you compost, the gardening benefits are:
improve soil structure
chemical free fertiliser
increase the yield of crops
Freya explained what composting is and how it is created and there were leaflets available to take home, and examples of the type of compost bins. Several participants shared opinions and experiences of the different methods and different bins.
‘I’m not an expert,‘ said Freya as she encouraged people to share their knowledge, ‘and always learn something at every workshop.’
I loved the generosity of those present sharing tips about where to get containers to use as compost bins or worm farms.
Freya had brought along some examples of the bins to show us plus a worm farm, which a lucky audience member won.
Freya explained, with illustrations, how to get started setting up a bin (these leaflets are available from the City of Kingston) and give us the ADAM recipe on how to compost successfully:
You need a mixture of green (nitrogen rich) and brown (carbon-rich) organic waste materials. The ratio being 3:1
GREEN – fresh grass clippings, fruit & vegetable scraps, bread (this may attract mice), tea leaves, coffee grounds, hair, vacuum dust, manure – vegetarian, weeds.
BROWN – tree prunings, dry grass clippings, straw, hay, cane mulch, dry leaves, bark, egg cartons, paper (serviettes, tissues…)
Other useful ingredients: wood ash, lime, egg shells, dolomite, blood and bone, dynamic lifter, soil.
A compost bin replicates what happens in the rainforest. Compost will be ready after 3-4 months.
Poking and mixing compost helps with aeration and decomposition to produce a good compost mix. Save your back by investing in a Compost mate for $20 to stir everything up!
to avoid rats place chicken wire under the bin before you start filling.
weeds can produce seeds – kill these in a black garbage bag first before adding to the compost or you could be spreading weeds throughout your garden beds.
instead of buying expensive conditioner use crushed eggshells instead – Google and there will be 1000s of opinions and bits of advice!
remember if you add citrus worms will not go near it
if you set the bins up in winter, it is colder and so add a few weeks or months to breakdown time
too many ants in the bin is a sign the compost is too dry so sprinkle with water
don’t let the compost get too dry and you will prevent fruit fly and other flies
keep mixing regularly to stop it getting too wet or too dry
the smaller the pieces the quicker it will break down – blend food or cut up to small pieces
bins like a lid!
She provided a troubleshooting guide but said if in doubt always return to ADAM!
A Plea for Earth Day
Earth, our planet, may be unique in this vast universe And yet, we take its bounty for granted Really, we are running out of time To heal and save this damaged miracle How foolish we are to ignore the signs Do nothing is not an option… Reduce Reuse Recycle Act now to save ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef or Year in year out, climate change will wreak havoc
My knowledge of worm farms negligible and this was the part of the evening I found most interesting. As far as recycling and limiting my environmental footprint is concerned, I have been doing that most of my life.
I had good teachers because my parents lived through the Great Depression and WW2 in the UK and brought us up with the mantra ‘waste not, want not’.
We were a working-class family, Mum saved and reused string, wrapping paper, jam jars; we wore or used things until they could no longer be handed down, or mended; our backyard grew potatoes and other vegetables, plums were turned into jam, hens provided eggs and ate scraps, and if by some miracle there was food left over, instead of compost, it was added to the plates of our pet dogs and cats.
But worm farming?
Didn’t know that was a ‘thing’ until the 1990s. I remember seeing a lot of wriggling worms at Collingwood Children’s Farm when the girls were on a school excursion and I went along as a parent helper. They were not in containers but eating their way through compost between two sheets of dark tarpaulin-like material.
The image has stayed with me but I never thought it was something I’d have at home.
When I worked at Bentleigh, one of my writing students talked about her worm farm but beyond that whenever someone mentions worms I think of a poem by Edward Larson and a song by ‘Unknown’ that I learnt at school and used to sing around the campfire when a Girl Guide:
Ooey Gooey Worm
Ooey Gooey was a worm
A wiggly worm was he
He climbed upon the railroad tracks
The train he did not see…
…OOOOOEEEE GOOOOEEE GOO!
Nobody loves me, everybody hates me,
because I go and eat worms,
Long, thin, slimy ones;
Short, fat, juicy ones,
Itsy, bitsy, fuzzy wuzzy worms.
Down goes the first one,
down goes the second one,
Oh, how they wiggle and squirm.
Up comes the first one,
up comes the second one,
Itsy, bitsy, fuzzy wuzzy worms.
At the workshop, Freya explained the advantages of worm farms:
ideal for homes with small yards or no gardens and for apartment balconies, courtyards
designed primarily for food scraps
faster process than composting
produce rich castings (vermicast)
and produces liquid fertiliser
it compliments garden waste compost – so keep fruit and veg for worms
you need 500-1000 worms to start (borrow from friends farms or buy from Bunnings)
Worms are hermaphrodites
there are 3 different types of worms for compost: Tiger worms, Indian Blues and Red Wrigglers
they don’t like sunlight or excess heat
coffee speeds up the composting process
worms don’t have teeth so cut food into small pieces or blend it before adding to speed up the process
worms eat their body weight in 24 hours
A ring around a worm like a saddle is holding up to 10 worm babies
worm populations double every 2-3 months
their life cycle is 2-3 years
worms don’t smell so can be kept indoors
if going on holiday leave bigger pieces – it takes worms approximately 8 weeks to munch through average organic waste
they will eat each other
drain the farm regularly
if the worm farm dies it may because too hot so always keep in shade (a dead worm farm smells disgusting! Freya said she’d rather sort through rubbish bins than cope with that smell!)
add ice cubes on a really hot day
if worms gather on the lid they are predicting rain
if in a big ball they are stressed and it’s not a good sign
if you want them to move into a particular area to remove worm castings then use citrus peels and they’ll move to avoid this
Worm farms are in layers: always have a dark lid
separate layers of food scraps and organic waste
the middle layer is where worms live and travel up through holes for food
the bottom layer is for worm castings and fertiliser
drill at least 12 holes to allow worms to move between layers – on a sunny day they will burrow down deeper
Australian worms cope with drought and are therefore slow eaters so use imported worms from South America to start your farm
don’t put tea bags with plastic tags into a worm bin
by a bedding block made from coconut husk, soak in a bucket of water and use this to cover the first layer of your farm – add layers and/or trays one at a time once full of food and ALWAYS blanket on top this will keep out direct sunlight. Can use an old carpet in winter or add coffee to get the worms active
Setting Up A Farm
Buy or build one from plastic tubs
begin with 1000 worms (bought or gifted from friends)
choose a shaded area sheltered from direct sunlight and heavy rain
line the tray with moist ‘bedding’ or newspaper
distribute the bedding and worms covering each layer with moistened paper
let worms settle for a week before feeding them
Keep the worms happy by always maintaining: Drainage, Acidity, Air, Food and Temperature
The final choice of the evening regarding composting was a Bokashi Bucket – probably the least popular method with only myself and two others admitting to having one. I haven’t used mine since I returned from overseas so maybe I shouldn’t count myself.
Bokashi is a convenient and environmentally friendly way to compost kitchen waste and it will compost almost all of your food waste – prepared foods, cooked or uncooked, meats and fish, cheese, eggs and eggshells, bread, fruit and vegetables, coffee grinds and tea leaves and bags, wilted flowers and tissues.
DO NOT put dog or cat faeces, bones or excessive liquid in the Bokashi Bucket – for these items a Biodegradable Cornstarch Bag if used, will help break them down in landfill.
5-Step Process To Use Bokashi Bucket
Place bin close to where food produced (kitchen bench, under the sink, laundry.) Put drain plate supplied with the kit at the bottom of the bin to allow excess liquid to drain.
Sprinkle a small amount of special BOKASHI MIX onto the drain plate. Add your food waste/scraps. Even paper and meat.
At the end of each day, compress the waste with the mashing utensil provided or your own tool if you’ve made a bin for yourself. This removes air pockets and then sprinkle some Bokashi Mix lightly covering the surface of the waste. Reseal lid so that it is airtight.
Once or twice a week drain the liquid from the bin. Repeat the filling process until the bin is full, which for an average family is just under a month. Feed the garden with the drained liquid (fertiliser) after adding water at a ratio 1:100. (Beware it is very strong fertiliser!)
When the bucket is full, empty the contents into a small hole or trench in your garden, or add to your compost bin. The waste will be fermented but not broken down, to do that it needs soil. (If you have an inquisitive dog like me, dig that hole deep!)
Rinse the bucket with water, no detergent or soap, drain and repeat process. You may have to check the tap at the bottom to drain does not get clogged. Also shop around for Bokashi Mix, which can be expensive but necessary because it contains effective micro-organisms. It is usually a combination of wheat bran and rice husks that have been sprayed.
The microbes have been organically certified by both NASAA and the BFA if you buy the mix from reputable outlets.
If there is no rotting odour, the Bokashi Bin is working well. The waste inside should go foul in a day or two and even produce white mould. Always mash down well, also drain properly. It is the fermentation process that is turning the waste into a rich soil conditioner
If the mould is green or black and the Bokashi begins to smell, then tip the contents out, wash bin and begin again.
4-6 weeks after the compost has been buried, it may be dug up and used on garden beds.
Of all the composting methods, the Bokashi Bucket is probably the most expensive setting-up and with ongoing costs. However, Freya gave leaflets out (and these can be easily downloaded) with DIY options.
An ice-cream container works just as well
You may get a food caddy free from the council when they introduce recycling food waste but the problem with anything free or discounted is that it can end up abandoned on the nature strip.
Compost Revolution (check online) may give a discount
I think it is safe to say that everyone left the evening inspired and determined – I know I’m certainly more confident in making the right choice and being pro-active in reducing landfill and may restart using my Bokashi Bucket!
There were some great suggestions about DIY compost receptacles – including a worm farm in an old chest of drawers!
Dog Poo – And Other Unmentionables
Polystyrene can’t be recycled in Victoria but the large rectangular containers are good to make your own worm farm.
There is still no recycling of dog poo or even special bins for collection, like in other countries – and even other councils.
Stonnington has special bins and bags available. And I saw many bins in the UK as far back as the 90s.
When I mentioned this to Freya, she said Australia was about 10 years behind many other countries.
Cultural change is slow but I guess we will get there eventually – especially with education officers like Freya and programs initiated by progressive local governments.
Meanwhile, we can all do what we can to REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE, REPURPOSE and COMPOST!
And keep our fingers crossed Federal politicians catch up!
I’m still coming to terms with the election result – as are about 50% of the population!
I was never confident of an overwhelming victory but I couldn’t believe that after six years of dysfunction, failed policies, three prime ministers and scandal after scandal of corruption and incompetence, and going to the voters with literally no policies or vision to solve climate change and social inequality that the LNP Coalition would be rewarded.
It was disappointing too that their lies were rarely challenged and the dodgy figures about unemployment – insecure work, underemployment, casual and contract work and the fact that one hour’s work a week is enough to move you from unemployment statistics – a shameful state of affairs for a wealthy country like Australia.
I’m a writer and writing teacher but how do I find the words to explain how saddened and shocked I am about the election result? Recommend strong verbs of course – many friends have already expressed their opinions:
The Liberal candidate in Isaacs, my electorate, was disendorsed for posting hate speech in an ‘appalling anti-muslim rant’.
Yet, as I scrutineered for Mark Dreyfus QC MP, I couldn’t believe the hundreds of people who still voted for the dumped candidate!
‘My goodness, are there that many racists living in Mordialloc?’ declared Nola, my fellow scrutineer.
Now the election is over, we have other similarly disendorsed Liberal candidates going to take their seat in parliament, no doubt under the auspices of the party that preselected them originally.
What happened to ethics and morality?
Election 2019 – A Failure For Fairness
We’ve just had Election Day when all through Australia
we turned out to vote to prove Democracy no failure.
Votes already cast knowing shocking deals done – later
some candidates forced to resign, one by horrible one.
But the men who removed Malcolm Turnbull as PM
not reduced in number – so don’t underestimate them.
Visions of Dutton as a leader still dance in some heads…
the folk on Manus and Nauru still toss in their beds.
The ‘silent majority’ with privileged excess in their bellies
believed Murdoch’s media and the crap on their tellies!
Despite what we heard – there was a rumble abroad –
not everyone realised that Morrison’s a fraud.
Plenty tapping at keyboards and scratching of pens
letters and online posts numbered multiples of ten
Passion and persuasion for society to include all
true social justice and ‘action on climate’ their call.
Lament environmental disasters, habitat losses
a wage system and laws overwhelmingly for bosses.
Seeds grow flowers and trees bear far-reaching fruit
school strikers and protesters cocked more than a snoot
at politicians and rich cronies who legislate inequality
the climate change deniers, those fearing collective solidarity.
Raised voices had courage, progressives give each other heart
so we must continue the fight until Morrison & Co depart.
Trickle down economics a failure, we must change the rules
implement a fairer tax system to fund hospitals and schools.
Labor’s policies seemed commonsense, natural and right
but when results were tallied on that fatal Election night…
How could this be? Morrison’s win dubbed ‘a miracle’
yet so little policy evidence to prove it empirical.
The nation is deeply divided although the LNP returned
with Labor’s bold reforming plan effectively spurned.
The outcome explored by journos and political pundits
while almost 50% of the population in bewilderment sit!
I weep for the planet, the suffering, and marginalised
I thought social justice and fairness an achievable prize!
Voters had one job to do and decisively blew it
but climate emergency means there’s no time to sit!
Progressives may reel from this election result
it seems to defy logic with the winners an insult
but the struggle must continue – no time for a pause
in tackling climate catastrophes and industrial laws.
‘It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.’
The older my children become, and as I age, the intensity of love for them deepens. I think of them every day, confirming the feelings and wisdom my own mother shared with me in the months before her death in 2009, aged eighty-nine.
She talked about her fears for my brother, George who was undergoing treatment for Leukaemia and said,
‘Loving and mothering is a lifetime responsibility – your children should never die before you. It’s not right.’
I have close friends who have lost adult children. They confirm the truth of Mum’s observation and I know each day for those friends getting up and coping with daily life is a struggle and testament to their resilience to ‘continue and carry on with life’ the way their loved ones would wish. The lead-up and actual celebration of days like today must be particularly difficult and my heart goes out to them.
‘She never quite leaves her children at home, even when she doesn’t take them along.’
Margaret Culkin Banning
When I decided to have a baby I was thirty-two and didn’t truly understand how profound becoming a parent would be personally or the effect on relationships with family, friends – and even strangers.
Born in the 1950s and part of Women’s Liberation in the late 60s and 70s, I was still expected to follow the ‘normal’ path of marrying and having children. It wasn’t my sole aim in life and I didn’t actively plan it but I went with the flow after meeting John and neither of us challenged the system, except I eschewed a white wedding and expensive reception and chose to marry in the garden of the house we bought together and party afterwards with many of the guests ‘bringing a plate’!
On reflection, I can say becoming a mother was the most exhaustive (and exhausting) change in my life – and continues to be – as long as my daughters and I remain intertwined.
I could write a lot about the picture of me in the early days of my daughter Anne’s homecoming – the congratulatory cards still visible, the dessert and glass of wine husband John prepared sitting untouched, me in an exhausted sleep all new mothers know well…
I salute my own mother for her guidance, values, and many examples of mothering. How she coped with six of us I will never know! I remember ringing her up and asking her once, after a particularly trying day with a baby plus toddler, ‘How are you still sane?“
I know that the deep love and bond I had with her is one of the reasons a loving bond with my daughters came easily.
There are similarities and huge differences regarding how Mum and I parented but not in attitude and determination to be loving and loyal whenever needed. We were both extremely lucky to be with partners we loved (Mum had Dad and I had John).
Partners who wanted children and were supportive, partners unafraid to share the household chores and unglamorous aspects of parenting and in my case, I know, a partner who cherished me and never stopped showing it.
John had been married before and so to a certain extent ‘knew the ropes’ regarding parenting so I was lucky. Although being present at the birth of both our girls, a totally new experience for him just as having me, a feminist as a partner, also a new experience!
In this picture, we are pregnant and ecstatic.
‘Say, what is the spell, when her fledgelings are cheeping, That lures the bird home to her nest? Or wakes the tired mother whose infant is weeping, To cuddle and croon it to rest? For I’m sure it is nothing but Love!’
Cheryl, now my ex-sister-in-law was a friend as well as part of the extended family in 1986. She produced the first of the next generation for our branch of the McInnes Clan in Australia in 1979 and the only ‘modern mum’ I’d observed firsthand.
She visited me in Jessie McPherson Hospital, Lonsdale Street, shortly after Anne’s birth. Into my ear, she whispered, ‘Welcome to the club.’
Her brown and my hazel eyes met as she squeezed my arm gently and with the still vivid memory of that miraculous moment when I held Anne to my breast for the first time, I knew exactly what she meant – becoming a mother, accepting the responsibility for another human being is transformational and understood by other mothers.
My first little ray of sunshine born after an emergency dash to Jessie Mac’s in Lonsdale Street at 3.00am, May 24, 1986.
John tailgated a taxi breaking the speed limit ( ‘they know the fastest route and where all the coppers and cameras are’ ). We hit no red lights and made the city in record time.
Three hours later Anne Courtney Neil arrived, three weeks earlier than expected but wide-eyed and ready to take on the world!
When I took Anne home from the hospital little did I know she had a hole in the heart – not discovered for almost twelve months, and then only by the extra diligence of a young doctor on work experience at the local clinic!
I still have cold sweats in the middle of the night when I think of the operation she had for ‘sticky-eye’ and a blocked tear duct when she was barely two months old, the eye specialist and the anaesthetist completely unaware of her heart condition.
There were the usual childhood accidents and illnesses too. The catastrophes that send mothers into a spin, fearful for the child’s wellbeing and welfare – Anne had no broken bones (Mary Jane delivered that excitement) but one day she bit hard and severed her tongue when she collided with a large wooden rocking horse.
I rushed to the local GP at the corner of Albert and McDonald Streets, in my slippers, wheeling five-year-old Anne in her sister’s pusher and carrying a protesting Mary Jane under my arm.
I’d stuffed a wet face-washer in Anne’s mouth to hold the tongue together and stem the bleeding (‘excellent response’ according to the doctor).
The trail of blood in the house and garden that greeted John when he rushed home after receiving a garbled message from his receptionist made him imagine a severed limb and he almost fainted. (The tongue does bleed profusely!)
However, he too praised my quick action racing to the surgery rather than ringing an ambulance or panicking. (That and delayed shock came later!)
Sometimes we amaze ourselves how we react and cope as parents.
Mary Jane’s birth in 1989, a more traumatic and dramatic story.
She arrived more than a week early and I barely got to Mordialloc Hospital in time for delivery sending the nursing staff into a flap. To this day she is known as ‘the baby born during the tea break’ arriving less than fifteen minutes after I walked through the front door.
John and Dr Ferguson arrived at the hospital just in time for delivery and I’m sure if there had been more traffic police on duty in those days, both would have been booked for speeding – perhaps even reckless driving.
Adding to the drama, Mary Jane breathed the meconium and amniotic fluid mixture into her lungs while in the womb and was born with the umbilical cord around her neck prompting a nurse to say, ‘Oh, she’s dead.’
The baby rushed to an incubator and the nurse reprimanded while everyone in the room paused for a moment taking stock of a miracle birth indeed! I went into shock and apparently kept asking John if I’d had a baby until they brought Mary Jane to me to be cuddled and fed!
Later, Mary Jane broke her arm in a ‘monkey bar’ accident at primary school but the seriousness of the fracture ignored by teachers who left her in Sick Bay while they tried to contact me or John and ‘ask what to do’ instead of taking her to a doctor or ringing an ambulance.
Our membership in the ambulance service and private health insurance on record and you can imagine the tongue lashing the administration of the school received from me.
Fortunately, a friend volunteering for reading duty noticed Mary Jane’s distress and demanded action; unfortunately, the delay and subsequent treatment at Sandringham public hospital during the upheaval of the Kennett years meant the arm was badly set and needed to be re-broken weeks later – this was done by a specialist at Como Hospital in Parkdale.
Sadly, Sandringham botched another operation when MJ was in her 20s, damaging her bowel when they discovered endometriosis during a routine operation to remove an ovarian cyst. Who says lightning doesn’t strike twice??
Often at night, I close my eyes and recall the horror of seeing my daughter with multiple tubes hanging from her young body. Flushed, in pain despite high doses of morphine, and unaware of the emergency operation, she murmured through an oxygen mask, ‘What happened?’
The déjà vu of the multiple traumas she has suffered weighs heavily on my heart. I have often wished for a magic wand to reverse the hurts or give my daughters the happiness and pain-free world of fairytales.
Motherhood exposes your deepest fears and inadequacies but it also helps you gain courage and grow – as Sophocles said, ‘Children are the anchors that hold a mother to life.’
Whenever my girls have been ill, in pain, troubled or suffering, I’ve wanted a magic wand to remove their misfortune or possess the ability to swap places and take away their discomfort. Instead, reality over fantasy, I’ve ‘gone into bat’ for them and fought school and government authorities, bullies, and anyone else who needed to be held accountable.
Like a lioness, I will fiercely fight to protect and defend. These skills and determination I learnt from own mother – she may have been barely five foot tall but her love and commitment to all six of her children taught me to be courageous and resilient regarding caring and coping as a parent.
‘A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity, it dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.’
Motherhood indeed the most emotional and enlightened transformation for me. Everything I’ve read, shared, learnt and absorbed about other women’s experiences reveals none of our journeys is exactly the same or can be predicted.
There are similarities, but it is a unique life-changing event filled with joys and sorrows, calm and turbulent seas, problems and solutions, holding tight and letting go, embarrassing moments and moments of pride and satisfaction.
‘The heart of a mother is a deep abyss at the bottom of which you will always find forgiveness.’
Honore de Balzac
Around the world, mothers worry about their inadequacies, feel overwhelmed and many like me who became a single parent because our partner died carry guilt about not coping or spending enough time as the ‘default’ parent.
(John died when Anne was sixteen and Mary Jane thirteen – I think most will agree parenting adolescents is tough with two concerned parents, with one, I can assure you, it is challenging and at times very lonely!)
Frustration, financial stress, fear of failure or making mistakes – subjects often discussed between friends, family and in some cases counsellors.
Nurturing has never stopped from their early childhood…
From miraculous beginnings to challenging responsibilities, navigating hopes and dreams, disasters and near misses, parenting has been rewarding, scary, comical, confronting, but most of all fulfilling.
My life has had a purpose and I’ve experienced and continue to experience a wonderful mutual love.
I am so lucky my girls as young women still want to visit and ‘hang out’ with me, travel together, see movies, play board games, walk the dog, shop, discuss and debate, laugh and even party with me.
They are friends as well as daughters, and often the nurturing role has been reversed – especially when I had breast cancer and now as I age and have lost some confidence about decision-making for the future.
At the beginning of my writing career, at the launch of my first poetry book, I said children were the inspiration and reason I wrote and also the reason I didn’t write because motherhood is time-consuming.
Over the years, especially caring for John, I can substitute family instead of mothering but I wouldn’t really have life any other way. Loving and knowing John and our daughters have enriched me and made me the person I am today.
I hope I’ve helped add two more productive, caring citizens to the community. I’m grateful that feminism has wrought changes in society and many of the preconceptions about women and their destiny are no longer peddled – my girls have choices their grandmothers didn’t.
My Mum won a scholarship to college in Northern Ireland but her stepmother wouldn’t let her continue with study and ordered her out to work, then came WW2, the ATS and then nursing. Her stymied educational opportunities were what motivated Mum to encourage all six of her own children to study and seek suitable qualifications for what we wanted to be.
I was the first in my family to go to university and I only wish mum could have witnessed me returning to study at 57 years old and gaining a Masters degree in Writing and her two granddaughters earn Bachelor degrees.
Always my wish has been happiness and good health for both girls – to be whatever they want to be and find contentment and fulfilment in their choices.
We are so fortunate to live in Australia and have the privileges we do and I’m glad both daughters are aware they stand on the shoulders of those who have come before, that there are still hurdles to leap, and they will always strive to ‘go higher’ and seek equity for themselves and for so many others not as fortunate.
I am happy they will follow their mother as I followed my mother in fighting for social justice.
‘Youth fades; love droops, the leaves of friendship fall; A mother’ s secret hope outlives them all.’