Poetry – a way to release and remember our inner child

You get your ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.

Neil Gaiman

I spend much of my time thinking up writing prompts and triggers to inspire my students and then more time planning lessons around the craft to improve the readability of their writing.

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Often we write for ourselves, but if most of us are honest, we write to share our thoughts and ideas and receive a boost to ego when someone appreciates our words. Competitions or requests for submissions on a particular topic are good exercises to flex writing muscles, move out of comfort zones, find a home for a story or poem, or just enjoy the challenge of polishing a piece to share with others.

For this reason, I make an effort to send work to Poetica Christi Press who, as their latest anthology Inner Child, boasts have been ‘Proudly publishing Australian poetry for 25 years.’ I also encourage my students to send their work ‘out there’…

inner child anthology 1 inner child anthology 2

Tomorrow Poetica Christi will launch another anthology.  I’m thrilled not only to again have one of my poems selected, but also a poem from one of my students, Jan Morris who excels at performing  Aussie Bush Poetry usually with a backdrop of a painting she has done. Her canvas for the paintings, old curtains salvaged from op shops – curtains with special backing to block out the sun.

Jan with her artwork:illustration

Jan incorporates humour in the short stories she writes in class and is an example of someone who makes the effort to ‘Always look on the bright side of life‘. A retired nurse and a widow of a Vietnam veteran affected by Agent Orange, she has an amazing stockpile of sad stories, but chooses to concentrate on blessings, jokes, eccentricities and funny events!

In the Foreword of the anthology the editors say:

…the inner child is celebrated, recalled, reinvented and shared. The poems are a poignant, honest and often humorous reminder that our inner child is only a heartbeat away.

 Jan reminisced about her childhood when milk was delivered by horse and cart:

inner child anthology Jan's poem

Another poet in the anthology is Avril Bradley, whose poetry often wins awards. Avril is widely published. I first met Avril when we were both involved in the Red Room Company’s Poetry about the sea project. (Several of the poems are still online on Flicker and I guess will be forever!)

inner child anthology Avril's poem

Winner of the Poetica Christi 2014 prize was another accomplished poet, Chris Ringrose:

inner child anthology Chris Ringrose

There are many other poets, some with several poems. Each anthology inspiring other writing and giving me something to aim for to improve my own efforts.  As someone who doesn’t consider themselves a poet – rather a writer who tries to write poetry – I’m thrilled one of my poems was included. It tells the story of an object from my childhood, a link with my mother and my children. It’s the kind of poem you can write in a memoir or life story class and as I often tell my students, ‘memory poems’ are a great way of recording the past.

I wrote about a shell that sat by the fireside in Scotland when we lived there, then sat on the sideboard when we migrated to Australia. I have no idea what beach it was first washed up on or its true origins – writer’s imagination kicked in. I may never have written this poem, if the prompt of the competition hadn’t arrived in my email box!

the shell is at least 62 years old- definitely older

inner child anthology my poem

This poem by editor Leigh Hay made me smile, reminiscent of the day I caught daughter MJ trimming Barbie’s hair!

inner child anthology poem by Leigh Hay

I can’t attend the launch because I’m volunteering at Open House Melbourne tomorrow – my fifth year at this event. However, I’m sure there will be plenty of others attending – the wordsmiths of Poetica Christi Press put on a wonderful afternoon tea, great performances by some of the poets and always a lovely classical musical recital. If I close my eyes I can picture the hall and the event, but I’m so glad I have the book to dip into whenever I want to get in touch with my Inner Child!

Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.’

C.S. Lewis

Ten Steps to writing  your own memory poem:

1. Write down in a couple of sentences of the first memory you have as a child when you were outside by yourself, or another vivid memory you often think about.

2. List the words: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.

3. Next to these words jot down whatever you experienced related to these senses.

4. Write what happened: what were you feeling at the time? Where were you? Why do you think this memory remains significant? Write this in prose so you get everything down.

5. Revisit the words you wrote alongside the 5 senses. What descriptions capture the emotions you have written about in your prose?

6. Cross out or ignore everything else unrelated – a poem, like a short story doesn’t have to include everything and is stronger if you concentrate on the important details.

7.What emotion do you want to convey about the time? How do you want the reader to feel after reading it? It will probably be complex, but no one is going to read your exploration/explanation about what you were trying to do! They’ll be reading your poem and interpreting it from their point of view and experience. However, it’s always a bonus if people “get it” and understand the emotion of the writer.

8. Remember poems don’t have to rhyme, but usually there are line breaks and punctuation so the reader knows the rhythm and captures the mood of the poem. Think of pacing – do you want the words to move slowly or quickly over the tongue.

9. Write your poem now – whatever way you want – remember to include action – strong verbs, concrete nouns, the emotion you felt.

10. Revise your poem by cutting out any words or phrases that don’t fit in with the feelings and mood you decided to create.

Let the poem sit for a few days before final revision – and if you’re anything like me, you’ll revise it every time you read it!!

Happy writing! And please feel free to share your poem or thoughts.

Alan Spence – His Writing Memorable and More Than Fine

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I’m not sure Somerset Maugham‘s quote is accurate for all texts, but the books I cherish have certainly resonated deeply and a recent gift from a writer friend is a case in point. Dave, who does have Scottish ancestry, but sounds as ocker as they come is a wonderful friend who shows he is thinking of me by gifting books he discovers in opportunity shops, secondhand bookstores, or passes on books he has enjoyed.

We met for a Senior’s meal at the local Mordialloc Sporting Club and he gave me a recent find.

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First published William Collins Sons & Co Ltd, 1977. Later Phoenix Paperback, 1996.

I don’t often do book reviews because as a writer I’m more comfortable reading and writing short stories and I’ll leave book reviews to my dear friend Lisa Hill who has a well-deserved prize winning blog prioritising books by  Australian and New Zealand writers, but who was kind enough to have me as a guest reviewer last year.

However, Its Colours They Are Fine is thirteen interlinked tales in Alan Spence’s first collection of short stories. Set in Glasgow, they depict aspects of life recognisable to the majority of Glaswegians who grew up there in the 50s and 60s. As someone who was born in Greenock in 1953,  a ‘kick in the bum’ or ‘stone’s throw’ away from Glasgow, I found the stories irresistible and meaningful.

Memorable, not because of what happens, but on account of the mood that is created and the shifts of feeling that are revealed. They are memorable because they ring true. They are rather like Chekhov’s stories. Spence, too, takes a little moment of ordinary experience and transforms it, in the simplest possible manner, into something significant… In an age of ugly preoccupation with violence, he draws attention to moments of beauty and stillness. He is a gentle writer, but never sentimental. The beautiful moments have always been earned… he is a writer to cherish, one offering deep and fulfilling pleasures.

The Scotsman Review

Spence’s dialogue in vernacular (braid or broad) Scots, evokes tenement life, the slums and their inhabitants, with voices of the young and old, Catholic and Protestant, Tinkers (gypsies/travellers), immigrants from Commonwealth countries, the employed and unemployed, the hopeful and disillusioned – and beneath the surface, the deeper currents of the Irish connection, the Protestant and Catholic divide manifested through adherence to Rangers or Celtic football club.(The Old Firm).

I’ve seen some statistics that say 60% of the Glasgow population has Irish ancestry  and having an Irish mother that figure wouldn’t surprise me. There have been plenty of books and films about Glasgow, showcasing the harshness of life in the tenements, but also the humour and resilience of the people. The hooliganism and open violence associated with the two major football teams,  the bigotry fuelled violence manifested in street games, school playgrounds, pubs and clubs and of course family life, still provide high drama today.

Billy Connelly’s honest humorous presentations of growing up in Glasgow, uses language and subject matter not to everyone’s taste. This video of Billy singing I Wish I was In Glasgow is sentimental and expresses feelings I can relate to, although I’d substitute Greenock. However, we are both ‘West Coasters’!

When I was reading the various stories, I kept having flashbacks to my childhood,  remembering snatches of stories from the long after-dinner sessions of storytelling from Mum and Dad. Homesickness has been described as nostalgia for the past – well I experienced plenty of nostalgia from these stories, but also admired how he elevated moments in the lives of ordinary people to memorable, magical and unforgettable events with language of poetic potency.

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The title of the book comes from a story about the Orange Walk, a day when the main character Billy declares ‘God must be a Protestant’ and can’t wait to sing The Sash My Father Wore, the chorus being:

It is old but it is beautiful, and its colours they are fine
It was worn at Derry, Aughrim, Enniskillen and the Boyne.
My father wore it as a youth in bygone days of yore,
And on the Twelfth I love to wear the sash my father wore.

Like many of the stories, it is peopled by working class Protestant characters, many flawed and bigoted, but they also can be loyal, warm and humorous friends. This particular story has the march starting off on a sunny Saturday and by the end of the day they’re in a field in Gourock amid pouring rain. “Wher’s yer proddy god noo!” asked his friend.

In a few pages Spence explores the religious divide, the bigotry, the violence and the ignorance that feeds the Orange Walk and other inappropriate symbols and celebrations, but also the spiritual dimensions to everyday experiences, the importance of rituals and how people can enjoy spectacles without fully understanding their cultural or historical significance. Maybe one day the Orange Walks will go the way of the Confederate Flag , another symbol well past its used by date. Hopefully, people in Northern Ireland, Scotland and beyond will see the divisive celebrations around July 12th for the anachronism they are and consign them to history books.

Other stories focus on family relationships with Tinsel exploring a child’s excitement at putting up the Christmas decorations in a tenement flat with a father ill and out of work and a mother doing her best to keep everything together. The bright decorations and warmth and love inside contrasts with a city still reeling from the damage of world war two, cramped and crowded living conditions, and high unemployment.

The decorations left over from last year were in a cardboard box under the bed…Streamers and a few balloons and miracles of coloured paper that opened out into balls or long concertina snakes. On the table his mother spread out some empty cake boxes she’d brought home from work and cut them into shapes like Christmas trees and bells, and he got out his painting box and a saucerful of water and he coloured each one and left it to dry – green for the trees and yellow for the bells, the nearest he could get to gold.

This story stirred memories of my mother making do; determined to give us the trimmings of Christmas. She helped us make decorations from crepe paper, and even the bright coloured milk bottle tops were useful to cluster together as bells. We  cut up cardboard breakfast cereal packets and covered shapes with the silver paper from inside cigarette packets, and colourful sweetie and chocolate wrappers. There was never the disposable cash to be able to buy the glittering ornaments available today, nor the distraction of all the screen-based entertainment. Making objects and decorating the tree and the house was ‘something special to come home for… and feel warm and comforted by the thought.’

Mum holding me Christmas 1953
Mum holding me with Catriona
Dad’s sister Mary (Aunt Mamie) holding me

The story Sheaves about Harvest Sunday is told from a young boy’s viewpoint too as he tries to understand the deeper significance of Bible texts and parables in relation to his own life. Torn between pleasing his Mother by getting ready for Sunday School yet envying and wanting to play with his friends. The ritual of Sunday best, the giving of fruit and vegetables and other food to thank God for the seasons is another strong memory for me, especially singing a favourite hymn:

We plough the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land;
But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand:
He sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.

Chorus:

All good gifts around us
Are sent from heaven above,
Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord
For all His love.

Spence has the Sunday School teacher remind the city children who have no experience of cultivating the land and who struggle with understanding the language of the Bible:

And no matter what happens to you, even if the dirt of the world seems to have settled on you and made you forget who you really are, deep inside you are still his golden sheaves. And no matter how drab and grey and horrible our lives and this place may sometimes seem, remember that this is only the surface. And even the muck of hundreds of years cannot hide that other meaning which is behind all things. The meaning that we are here to celebrate. That God is love and Christ is Life.

The inscription at the beginning of the book is “To Nityananda and Shantishri (Tom and Maureen McGrath)” and a couple of the stories reflect Spence’s interest in the Indian spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy.  A recurring theme in the stories is that there are greater cosmic forces beyond earth and although it may be fleeting we can all experience or gain insight into this at different times in our lives, a spiritual dimension to everyday life.

The Rain Dance is a wonderful rich story with many layers about a “mixed” marriage (a Protestant marrying a Catholic) in a registry office and the rituals and festivities surrounding this event. From the noisy “hens” party parading the bride-to-be in the streets for kisses and pennies to the Scramble for bell money – the father of the bride throwing a handful of coins after the church ceremony to be scrambled for by waiting children and other onlookers.

Ah remember reading,’ said Jean, ‘that scrambles go right back tae the olden days, when the didnae keep records an that. An it wis so’s the weans an everybody wid remember the wedding. then if they ever needed witnesses, they’d aw mind a the money getting scrambled.

My parents had a registry office wedding in Glasgow in 1948. No member of Dad’s family attended because they objected to him marrying Mum – upset he chose to marry an Irish woman! Fortunately, Mum’s brother Tom and wife Bessie caught the overnight boat from Belfast and along with the best man witnessed the marriage, and shared a celebratory meal and drink in a nearby hotel. My parents eventually made up their differences with Dad’s family, but I often think how sad their ‘special day’ probably was and try to imagine the ceremony and their feelings.

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Dad and Mum married at registry office Glasgow 16/12/1948
Mum and Dad's wedding day with Tom and Bessie Courtney, Mum's brother and wife
Mum and Dad’s wedding day with Tom and Bessie Courtney, Mum’s brother and wife

Spence describes the day in a way that is culturally specific to Scotland yet full of universal observations and emotions and the description of the actual ceremony particularly poignant for me.

It was over so quickly… awkward, on the pavement, trying to keep out of the wedding-group photos of the couple that had just come out; confusion over which door to go in, then somebody showing them the way; hustle along the corridor, a few minutes’ wait, hushed, in the hall; a door opening, another wedding-group bustling past; another door opening and the registrar ushering them in.

In a low, bored drone he intoned the preliminaries… Brian was staring at the pattern on the carpet, as if he could read there the meaning of it all, the meaning they all knew at that moment. Not the lifeless ceremony, the cardboard stage-set, the dead script, the empty sham. Not that, but something at the heart of it, something real. In spite of it all, they knew, and that was what moved them, to laugh or to cry.

The other stories observe detailed fragments of life in Glasgow. Spence draws on his own childhood, with real and imagined stories. The prejudice and violence often confronting and embarrassing, none more so than Gypsy when he reveals the shameful bigotry and bullying of the people we referred to as tinkers. How sad that those at the bottom of society’s pecking order have to find  other more marginalised people to despise.

And finally, the book closes with Blue, a first person account from a grief-stricken boy coping with the death of his mother who had been ill for sometime. He works through the various connotations of “blue” whether it be his Ranger scarf, his Catholic friend’s explanation of the colour and significance of Mary’s robes, the lyrics of diverse songs like Blue Moon and Singing The Blues…

It was as if part of me already knew and accepted, but part of me cried out and denied it. I cried into my pillow and a numbness came on me, shielding me from the real pain. I was lying there, sobbing, but the other part of me, the part that accepted, simply looked on. I was watching myself crying, watching my puny grief from somewhere above it all. I was me and I was not-me.

As a writer and a reader (and as a Scot), I’m grateful Dave discovered this book for me. It is 232 pages of powerful storytelling and as the young boy in the closing story learns, despite the tragedy of his Mother’s death, life does go on and the rest of the world goes about their business. The next day “was the same. It was very ordinary. Nothing had changed…”

Except the reader – the stories will make you ponder the complexities of the human condition and engage your emotions. Trust me, you don’t have to be Scottish to enjoy them!

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The Writerly Self – A Reflective Essay on a Personal Journey of Professional Development

‘Writing about writing is one way to grasp, hold, and give added meaning to a process that remains one of life’s great mysteries… the moment of exquisite joy when necessary phrases come together and the work is complete, finished, ready to be read.’

writers by the bay - anthology 1, 1997
writers by the bay – anthology 1, 1997

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been engaged with reading and writing. In school, ‘to be a writer’ the first and latterly the only desire expressed whenever asked ‘what career do you want?’ At high school during the end of the sixties the education system, and indeed society, acknowledged females could dream of a career and not a job, however, the proviso ‘until they married to produce the next generation’ was implied.  Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch opened up an amazing new world of questions and ideas.

My working class migrant home and public high school considered creative writing something done in your spare time; innate talent may lead to ‘discovery’, but rarely financial success. No courses teaching the craft existed as far as I knew and the feminist rewriting of the male-dominated canon of Australian fiction did not begin until the late 1970s. Parents and teachers assumed ‘journalist’ and ‘writer’ interchangeable.

So, I studied history (another love) at university, travelled, worked at various skilled and semi-skilled jobs, married, had children, started a writing group, became involved in schools and the community, cared for my dying husband, devised courses and began teaching, and always kept writing: academic assignments, articles for magazines, newsletters, stories for family, poetry for myself and others, letters, postcards, haphazard journal entries, lesson plans, even some imaginative creative pieces. Enthralled by the power and beauty of words, I tried to harness the thoughts and stories swirling in my head.

No passion has been as constant, as true as this love‘.

I enrolled in the Master of Arts (Writing) after encouragement from Glenice Whitting, a member of Mordialloc Writers’ Group. A trusted ‘critical’ friend, Glenice finished a novel, won a literary prize, and launched her book at the Writers’ Festival after studying a similar course at Melbourne University. This inspiring journey of achievement culminated in a PhD (well done Dr Glenice Whitting) and the completion of another major writing project.

Each fortnight, workshopping at our local neighbourhood house the group gained valuable tips to improve our writing when Glenice  shared philosophical and theoretical ideas from her readings. This generosity, found in the Mordialloc Writers’ Group contributes to the quality of each other’s work. The listening, the absorbing, the constructive feedback, the valuing of learning and always striving to be better writers.

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In 2010, with Glenice’s insistent ‘do it,’ I took the plunge and enrolled at Swinburne University: to focus on my writing dreams, to transform entrenched habits and improve my craft, stretch reading horizons, and move out of my comfort zone by seeking help from more accomplished writers within and without, academia. I hoped the experience would make me a better teacher too!

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The online course suited family, financial, and work commitments. However, returning to tertiary study after almost forty years absence, a challenge with difficulties I didn’t foresee! The volume and academic style of most set readings confronting and at times overwhelming. Academic texts needed examination, deconstruction and clarification. What did they mean, if anything, to my writing life and style? This deep reflection of my work a new concept, as well as being time-consuming and requiring discipline, but two years in a life of over half a century didn’t seem much of a sacrifice – or so I thought.

I embraced new technology with limited expertise, trusted disembodied relationships with tutors and students, many living interstate and in different countries. Despite being ‘screen’ tired with a mind ticking over like a Geiger counter, the joy in writing I sought returned, albeit slowly. I began to reflect on the process itself when the initial shock of ‘settling in’ was compounded by a diagnoses of breast cancer. Life is full of surprises, but perhaps the biggest surprise is the strength we find within when needed.

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A new world beckoned. With help and support from family and friends, I adapted my lifestyle, extended boundaries and learnt the true meaning of flexible hours: working into the night, forgetting what television looked like and leaving more of the day-to-day running of the house to my daughters. Although, always open to change, this unplanned border crossing never foreseen for my late 50s. On reflection, the journey not only proved worthwhile, but gave me a fantastic focus and distraction through a health crisis I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy! In modern parlance, working towards and achieving my master’s degree a definite ‘game changer’.

The richness of other student contributions gave new perspectives as well as exposure to a variety of genres. Could I write a suspense novel? A gritty screenplay? A monologue? Poetry? Be a short story writer? What about creative non-fiction? Historical romance?

I had been writing everyday, but not necessarily the writing I wanted to do. My goal of self discipline to create time to write every day on a desired project and not because a deadline loomed, seemed elusive. The intensity of study, the volume and regularity of the submissions required, left little time for stream of consciousness writing or spontaneous creativity, but there was excitement and developing friendships amongst all the learning.

The concepts of dramaturgy and frame theory were new to me, although perhaps I’d been applying frame theory and considering dramaturgy for years without knowing the theoretical name. I visualise each scene before I write and edit – almost as if watching it on television, or acting in front of a mirror – the preferred method of Charles Dickens who created characters and acted them out to perfect expressions and voices.

From the beginning there was a very strong connection between the oral and the literary in Dickens’ art.”

I work out the order of the detail in my short stories to help with sentence structure and avoid dangling modifiers. I’m an ‘outliner’, not a ‘pantser’. The dictionary defines dramaturgy as ‘a theory, which interprets individual behaviour as the dramatic projection of a chosen self’. I create characters, put them into situations, and imagine how they walk, talk, and act. I draw on my observations, but also personal experience. Some see dramaturgy as ‘a way of understanding and analysing theatrical performances… to help us understand the complexity of human interactions in a given situation’.

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As a people watcher, I observe and scribble in a notebook, taken everywhere. An event, a smell, sound or person triggers the muse. Later, these pages filled with character profiles, plus ideas for prose and poems become details in stories. Sometimes I’m inspired and start writing the story on the train or in the cafe, if I can write undisturbed. The bones of a story grow. Writers must be curious and record observations because this advice is repeated in almost all articles and books on the craft of writing.

On the city-bound train , two deaf people are having an animated conversation. Six metal bangles on the overweight woman’s right arm so tight they don’t jangle as she waves her hands. The man unkempt, yet an expensive camera hangs across his chest. Are they tourists tired or stressed from travelling? What is it like coping with such a profound disability on public transport where commuters rely on announcements over the tannoy? What if the train breaks down?

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” ‘Playing our parts.’ Yes we all have to do that and from childhood on, I have found that my own character has been much harder to play worthily and far harder at times to comprehend than any of the roles I have portrayed.”

Bette Davis 1908-89

I prefer this quote from Bette Davis to the Shakespearean ‘All the world’s a stage‘. I’ve struggled over the years being dutiful daughter, loving and supportive wife, responsible, nurturing mother, loyal friend and sister, diligent employee, interested teacher… ‘playing’ roles yet aching to be a writer and wondering how well I ‘perform’ when my heart and brain are focussed elsewhere. Everybody is an actor on a stage Shakespeare called ‘the world,’ however, for most people, the stage is a much smaller ‘my life’.

Shakespeare’s gift of using the stage as a metaphor for living clever  because everyone is born (makes an entrance); dies (exits) and plays different roles from birth. Researching to find the context for the now clichéd quote I’m sidetracked as usual ( a major failing). So many Internet sites and tomes from bookshelves cite, deconstruct, dissect, and revere Shakespeare.

My ego wonders if in the future anyone will read my writing. Can/will I ever write anything as profound or memorable as the speech by the melancholic Jaques in As You Like It? The ‘seven ages’ of man condensed in cynical terms in a limerick by British poet Robert Conquest:

Seven stages, first puking and mewling,
Then very pissed off with your schooling;
Then fucks and then fights
Then judges chaps’ rights
Then sitting in slippers, then drooling!

When I think of writing Dad’s story and his love of pithy poetry and the verses he made up, I wonder if I should frame each chapter around poetry. Introduce the stages of his life using either a poem or song by Robert Burns, his favourite bard. I reject the last line of Conquest’s limerick. Dad’s dementia and the long period of emotional stress the family experienced will not be reduced to such an image. My Father’s life should not be defined by the changes wrought by illness and ageing.

I want my world to end with a ‘bang’ not a ‘whimper’ to borrow from T.S Eliot. A couple of my short stories work as ‘faction’ so I will keep experimenting. Sometimes it’s easier to fictionalise traumatic events or deep feelings, be the cold observer rather than a participator!

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An article on Dramaturgical Analysis gave me a new perspective and some good ideas on a play about the environment I was asked to write for Grades 5 and 6. An idea to teach the children about environmental sustainability and along a similar theme to Sense and Sustainability: A Fable for our Times. If developing the play, I’ll consider the ideological frame as well as the structural frame. I want the children to identify with the issues and realise they can make a difference. I hadn’t considered using a myth or folktale to provide organisation for ideas, but appreciate how reference to well-known stories may add depth to the script and enrich an audience’s understanding. In Australia, because of our multi-cultural population there are myriads of folk tales to draw on.

It’s a steep learning curve to look through a playwright’s eyes and use dramaturgical analysis as a critical tool, but I enjoyed finding out about  the proscenium arch and other terminology associated with theatre; how a play will be presented and the difference images and symbols make. The proscenium arch is the performance area between the background and the orchestra or between the curtain or drop-scene and the auditorium. Many innovative ways to use this space present themselves.

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In a piece of happenstance I won free tickets to the Victorian Opera’s interpretation of Chekhov’s The Bear. There was a split stage, which gave wonderful visual framing ideas. Aleatory, another new word learned: ‘technology is used to suppress aleatory results‘. Aleatory is defined as ‘depending on the throw of a die or on chance, depending on uncertain contingencies or involving random choice by the composer, performer, or artist.’ Learning to use the Internet for research, it seemed the exact opposite sometimes.

I typed ‘workhouse’ into Google for family history information and came up with 3,460,000 links in 21 seconds. No doubt the number and speed increased since 2010. By only using the word, many irrelevant results and often random associations appear. To save time and get the most benefit out of the Internet I learned to be smarter.

The exposure to other writers in the course led to discussions about books by ‘colonial’ writers revealing heritage and raising issues of identity. I determined to reread many loved favourites as a writer as well as a reader, especially after a tutor asked, ‘to what extent do white writers have to consider their colour as writers?

A difficult question to answer as a white woman, who has always lived in a free society. I agree with bell hooks, there is a ‘link between my writing and spiritual belief and practice… how our class background influences both what we write, how we write, and how the work is received.’

Most white writers don’t give their colour a second thought if they live where they are the dominant culture. However, an Australian writer Harry Nicolaides while living in Thailand was incarcerated for insulting the Thai royal family in his novel. I would think many writers living in some Islamic countries need to be careful. In Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran and even Turkey imprisoned journalists and writers make the news. We tend to think of Europeans being the main colonial powers in recent history and the colonised non-white, but in the 1930s and 40s Japan expanded its empire. Even in recent times, the Indian sub-continent and African continent have more than their fair share of colonial trauma.

To write my family history with an Irish mother and a Highland father the experiences of the Irish and Scottish populations must be considered and the effects of England’s colonial behaviour. Dr Johnson’s view in his journal, Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland,reveals a narrow, disdainful individual, whose sojourns into that which is unknown to him may be compared to the impressions of those first Europeans who penetrated the African interior, socially placing its inhabitants as inferior.’

The Highland Clearances and the aftermath sent many people, including some of my relatives to Australia. They lost their land and came out here to displace the indigenous population. I’d like to explore this sad irony and grave injustice in my writing. You can’t rewrite history, but you can examine the story from different angles and make an effort for a balanced account.

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How does my hybridity affect my writing? I feel like an uprooted tree with memories and attachments to many places. I travelled a lot when younger and hope to do so again. I struggle to keep a journal yet when travelling, writing became second nature, especially letters home. Boxes of paraphernalia sit in the garden shed to be turned into stories ‘one day’.

I found a handful of old postcards after an aunt died and a fascination with a first cousin of my father’s began. He bears Dad’s name and is buried in Egypt – another nineteen year-old casualty of Gallipoli. I empathised with Hélène Cixous when she stood and cried at her grandfather’s grave, a person dead long before she was born – a photograph in an album, a family legend.

All biographies like all autobiographies like all narratives tell one story in place of another story.

I wrote a short piece of prose about discovering our family’s ANZAC, but further research makes the story change. I learnt his parents still spoke Gaelic and try to imagine what he thought in the trenches of Gallipoli fighting beside Scots as well as other nationalities. Did he identify as an Aussie? Did he think himself noticeably different?

One tutor asked, ‘What do you think of the idea that writing itself is a process of self-knowing… we come to know ourselves through the things we write? Post examples of your ‘voice’ to illustrate how you use language.’

Are the paths our writing takes us down, paths to self knowledge? Often I surprise myself when I read a poem or story I’ve written. I ponder: did I write that? Even when I think I’m in control of the pen and words, my writerly self takes its own path!

I’m an ‘inheritor as well as an originator,’and like bell hooks I believe my ability and desire to write are blessings. I am the keeper of the stories of parents’ and family, in particular my mother’s. Mum spoke into a tape recorder for several hours telling ‘herstory’, and I am immensely grateful we spent time together to record the events she thought important. It’s still a painful task to listen and type. Mum’s voice triggers strong emotions; fingers freeze on the keyboard and tears flow. Complicated grief can last a long time, her death still feels raw.

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A sense of ‘voice’ crucial in writing therefore I want to make sure it is Mum’s voice and not mine when I write her story. Yet, as I record extracts for a women’s memoir site in America, and life story classes here, my story is being written too. I know my voice changes depending on what I’m writing, sometimes from a conscious effort because I don’t want fictional characters to sound like me, or all the factual characters either!

Years ago, my brother George rang me after reading a story of mine in Mordialloc Writers’ third anthology, Up the Creek With a Pen. ‘Mairi, I had to read it twice it was so good. It’s very different from your other stories, I didn’t even pick you as the writer.

Up The Creek With A Pen, anthology 3, 2003
Up The Creek With A Pen, anthology 3, 2003

This ‘backhanded compliment’ made me go back and read the story again! What made it so different? The topic? The male protagonist? The language ? The pacing? Another step along the road of maturity in the craft; learning to pay more attention to how the words sit on the page?

The craft of writing is what I enjoy the most; it’s my comfort zone and I know this is why I love teaching creative writing because for a few hours a week I share my passion for the English language, its nuances, its flexibility, the chance to experiment, and the fire of imagination.

I recall a student comment about family history , ‘It’s funny though, that the stories we tell the most are often the hardest to put to paper. Sometimes the best stories are the ones we are so comfortable with that they live and grow with us and so writing them is counter-productive.

I noticed repetition in the stories with Mum, as I interviewed her over four years, yet the telling was different. Dad, an entertaining raconteur repeated the same tales with or without embellishments. I don’t see writing them down as counter-productive, rather I consider the stories are part of our family lore, they’ve made an impression to be retained over the span of a lifetime (in my parents’ case, 80 plus years). I want to record the memorable ones, work out why they remain important. Retain them for future generations because idiosyncratic tales make each family unique. I regret not recording Dad before Dementia robbed his memory.

Another student, an accomplished writer commented on poems I’d written, ‘I suppose I’m looking for you to take it one step further – is this the only side of Mum? What brings you to remember? and similarly for Journey home – are you there? What’s it feel like? I want some personal insight or big picture analysis.’

For Mum
Mairi Neil
I think of you baking scones,
your floral apron streaked with flour.
Ingredients never measured,
just swirled together
by experienced hands,
used to work. And gifting love.
The soft splat of dough
against Formica,
the thump of rolling pin,
scrape of metal cutter,
and then,
the leftover scraps
patted to shape a tiny scone…
‘For you – this special one,’ you said.

The Journey Home
Mairi Neil

He squeezes past me
on the escalators
at Melbourne Central
overweight and red-faced
wheezing in time
with the clunk
of her strapless high heels
clattering like hooves
on cobblestones of old

He flings a challenge
over his shoulder
‘The train leaves in one minute!’

wheeze kerplunk clunk clunk
wheeze kerplunk clunk clunk

She puffs and pants
heels galloping
breath exploding
the momentary hesitation
as the ticket machine swallows
and reluctantly spits tickets
into waiting fingers
frantic eyes balloon
at more escalators
to be negotiated

wheeze kerplunk clunk clunk!

Mum was not just the cook, nor indeed ‘just a mum’. I’ve spent a long time (perhaps too long!) researching to ensure her time in the army, as a nurse and many other experiences BC (before children), as well as her achievements and contribution to community and church in Scotland and Australia are recorded. The jigsaw of her life complete so people understand the big picture. We are all complicated human beings.

I wrote the poem about the scones as a special memory to read at mum’s funeral and it struck a chord with others to be published elsewhere.

‘Although I have not written in this journal for a month, storytelling has been an active and dominant part of my life during this time.’

Skywalker Payne

My writerly self understands imagination works overtime, characters and plots in abundance go unrecorded or not shared with writing buddies. Family history/tales come alive when we recount parents’ or our own lives to children and there’s an urge to record them for posterity. That’s what writers do.

Anais Nin, Katherine Mansfield and Henry Thoreau achieved much in their journals. The beneficial aspect of keeping a diary well-documented. It can be the start of poems, prose, and novels. One of my students kept a journal for 35 years before substituting it with a ‘blog’.

I often think of ‘the women writers whose work and literary presence influences me, shaping the contours of my imagination, expanding the scope of my vision.This blog could help me too.

Novels may still be unfinished, stories lacklustre, poetry mere doggerel – some days I feel everything, but a writer. The longing to write what I want instead of what seems to be needed (by deadlines, briefs, other people) exists. A deep yearning drives me to counteract the reality of creative writing as something squashed between other life commitments. To feel gladness, not just relief, when the words are on paper, will probably always be a difficult goal to achieve.

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I’ll keep scribbling and hoping it will gel one day.

Writing Family History and Life Stories as Literary Non-Fiction

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Rain batters the window as the white fluffy cumulus clouds, gathering and growing all day, decide to join together and release their load. A thunderclap booms and rumbles and a spectacular flash of lightning paints a jagged design across the sky. Nine-year-old Mary Jane huddles closer. ‘I’m not scared Mum, but that was loud, wasn’t it?’ She relaxes into my arms as I murmur, ’you’re safe here, darling,’ and I rest my chin lightly on her auburn head and close my eyes. An image appears of Dad lying comatose in his bed at Maroondah Hospital, Croydon.

False teeth awkwardly protrude from slack-jawed mouth; frail body shrunken and vulnerable. Only with concentration can I detect the almost imperceptible movement of his chest, and as trembling hands scrabble at the cotton bed sheet, I stop holding my breath; release an audible sigh of relief. My nose twitches at the sickly sweet smell from his dry lips and open mouth — it’s the residue of medication, not the smell of death – yet.

Several tears seep from the corners of my eyes, to lie hot and wet on winter-pale cheeks. I shake off the memory of our visit today and stare at the cluster of family photographs atop the maple entertainment unit. Maroondah Hospital, an hour’s drive, but also a world away from my comfortable reality. John’s culinary efforts fill the house with aromatic herbs and spices and in-between the rhythmic chop of vegetables, I hear the breathless tinkle of Anne’s voice, embellishing Year 7 tales.

More thunder rolls, this time far into the distance, but lightning flares again and a barrage of tiny hailstones drum a tattoo on the windowpane. A large shudder reminds me of Mary Jane’s need for reassurance and as I rub her back gently, subliminal flashes of her colicky babyhood make me smile; the nights pacing the floor to ease her pain. A surge of tenderness tightens my hold and I whisper, ‘I love you.’ My eyes ache with unshed tears as outside Mother Nature wails and weeps, reminiscent of a tempestuous night in another country… another time… a world away from Mordialloc.

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It’s Saturday evening at 35 Davaar Road, in 1961 Scotland. The film How Green Was My Valley broadcast on television for family viewing. The youngest siblings, Alistair (5) and Rita (2) are already in bed, but at eight-years-old, along with George (9), Iain (10) and Catriona (12), I’m allowed to stay up later than the usual 7.30pm ‘lights out’ rule of the school week.

Saturday night is ‘treat’ night. Dad has been paid on Friday and the budget allows a choice of favourite chocolate from the ‘Tali’ van coasting the neighbourhood playing Greensleeves. The mobile shop called the ‘Tali’ van and the driver referred to as ‘Tony’ regardless of his real name.

Ice-cream first introduced to Scotland by waves of Italian migrants in the early twentieth century. Most of the cafes, fish and chip shops, ice cream vans and restaurants established or owned by Italian families: Drivandi, Nardini, Capaldi, Spiteri. However, pizza and pasta have still not replaced the popular ‘fish supper’ in most Scottish homes. Italian families have lived in Greenock and surrounding districts for generations and speak with broad Scottish accents, but retain much of their Italian culture, especially Roman Catholicism.

Lyons_Maid_Ice_Cream_Van    six of us

Allowed to stay up late to watch the Saturday Night Movie on television, we munch on chocolate (Cadbury’s Flake my choice of delicacy) and sprawl on the dark green and faded gold sofa; its tired cloth worn thin from thirty years of service. Wide sofa arms make great horse rides to watch The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid after school and the hard horsehair stuffed cushions become formidable weapons in sibling squabbles.

This lounge suite inherited from Dad’s family home takes up most of the spacious living room, just as it did in 2 George Square, the tenement where I was born. A Radio Rental television the only new item of furniture, ‘standing out like a sore thumb’ in my Irish mother’s opinion, alongside other items from George Square: a 1900 rosewood china cabinet, a 1950s radiogram and 1930s walnut bed-cabinet, the drawers of which store spare bedclothes wrapped in tissue paper, and a home for Iain’s hamster when it makes one of its many escapes from his fireside cage.

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We ‘flitted’ to Davaar Road when I was three years old, a successful privately negotiated house swap with a couple who wanted to move into the centre of the town. Mum and Dad were thrilled at the move to the new estate of Corporation houses at Braeside, the result of a building boom filling the twenty-years of demand for houses, to replace the hundreds of homes lost during the Greenock Blitz. The new houses provide front and back gardens to cultivate flowers and vegetables, room for pets, a washing line with poles, and grassy playing space. Luxury!

Three large bedrooms upstairs provide room for an expanding family (ours increased by two); plus separate bathroom and toilet. Downstairs, a welcoming vestibule leads to a kitchen, dinette and living room, plus an inside coal bunker in the back lobby. A profound and welcome change from the two rooms, kitchen and bathroom shared in George Square with Dad’s father and unmarried sister, Mary. Even although we were better off than the majority of Scotland’s population living in tenement flats of either one room and kitchen houses or ‘single-ends’ (a single room with a communal toilet and bathroom at the end of the hall), the cramped conditions of George Square meant Mum and Dad couldn’t wait to move out.

The bed-cabinet, Aunt Mary’s bed for years in George Square and latterly shared with Catriona, now only used at New Year when the family came to stay to celebrate Hogmanay. The ‘hole-in-the-wall’ bed, a unique Scottish adaptation to alleviate overcrowding, not missed either. Papa slept in this bed set in the wall cavity in the kitchen, which may have contributed to his deteriorating health. Research shows it caused shocking health problems, particularly respiratory disease. Poor housing, poverty, and ill health — the struggle for men to make ‘a living-wage’— a common story in a capitalist society and borne out by statistics. Most Clydeside families watching How Green Was My Valley empathising with the characters’ lives and struggles.

papa and hole in wall bed

Despite the limitations of black and white technology, which realistically depicts the bleakness of the lives of Welsh coal miners in the years between the first and second world wars, the film reveals the magnificent grandeur of the Welsh valleys. The story unfolds of a little boy growing up in a large caring family. His father comes home covered in black dust after a physically demanding day down the coal mines. My father comes home covered in black dust after a physically demanding day shovelling coal and driving steam trains as a locomotive driver. he works hard to support our big family, which for a long time included his father and sister.

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The film on the BBC is free from the advertisements that irritate my parents, and for once, Mum is happy our eyes are ‘glued to the screen’. However, I’m devastated when the father dies in the film. Overcome with sadness, sitting on Dad’s lap, the privileged throne for the youngest in the room, I sob into his shoulder. Grateful for the large man’s handkerchief he extracts from his trouser pocket, I give ‘a big blow’ at his suggestion and snuggle into his strong arms trying to imagine what life would be like if he died. A memory stirs of our first year at Braeside. The sadness of Aunt Mary’s long illness and death; followed a few months later by my Papa’s stroke and death. I don’t want life to be like that and cling to Dad’s woollen pullover to anchor him to me forever.

The living room cosy from the embers of a glowing coal fire and the subdued light of a standard lamp, but a November gale rages outside, a fitting backdrop to the tragedy witnessed on the television and mirroring my mood. Mum leaves Dad to console me and heads to the kitchen to prepare a bedtime Bovril. Dad suggests a piggyback up the stairs to bed, in a ploy to stem the flow of tears. Attempts by the others to ‘jolly me up’ abandoned immediately to race ahead in noisy competition. Iain piggy-backs George with a giggling Catriona as helper-cum- boss.

Instead of taking me straight to bed, Dad pauses on the landing at the top of the stairs. He thinks I’m shuddering and scared of the thunder and pulls back the pink floral curtains from the window. ‘Look, love, don’t be frightened. You’re safe inside. The storm is moving back out to sea.’

My hazel eyes stare at the window watching our breath steam the glass. I can just see the dramatic dance being played out over the tiled rooftops of neighbouring houses and across the heather clad hills. Shredded black capes of clouds flap across the sky driving icy rain to sparkle like crystals while bouncing off roof tiles and tree branches stripped bare of leaves.

Suddenly, as if by magic the wind runs out of puff; the rain eases. Supported by Dad’s strong arms, I caress the soft smoothness of his neck with my cheek; let eyelashes gently scrape his ears and feel his hair tickle my nose. Safe and consumed with a powerful love I breathe in the familiar fresh soaped skin, hair faintly Brylcreamed; a shirt collar impregnated with his perspiration. He smells so alive that the fear of losing him recedes.

His soft voice explains that lightning causes thunder. He talks about extreme heat, expansion, shock and sound waves, reminds me to read again the book What is Weather that I won for being first in my class at Ravenscraig Primary School. However, this is not school and staring into the darkness, I see thick, menacing, black clouds hiding the moon and stars. The foggy window’s tear-streaked glass shares my sorrow. I shiver, unsure whether the shadow hovering by the street lamp is a bat. I cling to Dad’s strong back and whisper, ‘I love you Dad. Don’t ever go away.’

With a surprise twirl, I’m swung around to sit on the windowsill, cold glass pressed against my back; transfixed by Dad’s dark brown eyes as he explains, ‘every living thing has a life cycle… I have to die one day darling.’ My horrified face crumples. He tries a joke. ‘If nobody died the world would be very crowded – eight in the bed everywhere, every day.’

He’s trying humour by recalling our special Sundays as a family. Sunday, the only day he doesn’t go to Ladyburn Depot to work for British Railways. The Sabbath important: we must rest, just as God rested on the seventh day after creating the world. For years, Dad has refused the lucrative double time he could earn by working on a Sunday. He swaps shifts with others so that he can honour his commitment to God, St Ninian’s Church, and family.

On Sunday mornings, we dive into Mum and Dad’s double bed for a rough and tumble, a tickle, and games such as I Spy and my Aunt Jane Went On Holiday. When it’s time to get up to prepare for church Dad sings, ‘There’s eight in the bed and the little one said,’ and baby Rita chants ‘roll over’. Then we all sing, ‘and we all roll over and one fell out,’ and of course the first one out is Mum as our raucous fun continues.

Down the stairs Mum pads, to light the coal fire, set the porridge on the gas stove, fold our underwear into the linen press to warm against the hot water pipes, set the Formica table for breakfast and buff our leather shoes lined up at the back door. The weekly ritual to be in our Sunday best, a triumph of organisation with only one bathroom and toilet to share, yet we make the nine o’clock family service at St. Ninian’s — and are never late – despite the local Church of Scotland where Dad is an Elder and Superintendent of the Sunday School, being a good half hour walk away. Our attendance records an amazing feat of achievement only rivalled by Mum’s similar success shepherding us out the door, on school days.

Mum’s nurturing taken for granted. It’s years before we reflect on how she was able to function on only a few hours sleep, rising with Dad’s soul-destroying shifts to ‘see him out’ and staying up ‘to see him safely home,’ while coping with the demands of motherhood, housekeeping routines and all the unexpected trials and tribulations of caring for in-laws as well as our big family.

In the kitchen, Mum clatters dishes, stirs pots and feeds the toaster with a loaf of bread, while the singing continues, until Dad and Rita are the last downstairs. A joyful family tradition, but the remembering only emphasises what a loss Dad’s death will be. I sniff and stifle a sob. Dad realises his mistake and tries another tack.  ‘I won’t be alone, Mairi. I’ll be with Jesus in Heaven and your Papa and Mamie will be there too.’

Shattered, the tears flood as if someone turned on a tap. I don’t want to be left lonely and sad like the boy in the movie. I don’t want to be reminded that people you love disappear. My chest heaves with wracking sobs. I’m conscious of moonlight reflecting off George’s glasses as he peeps from behind the bedroom door he has pushed ajar to see what’s going on.

The pain of my heart beating so fast it blocks my throat makes it hard to swallow. Red eyes ache as if full of grit; I rub my face into Dad’s shoulder transferring tears and snot, but he doesn’t mind. I want to bury myself beneath the blankets of the three-quarter bed I share with Catriona; forget the film, forget the storm, forget Dad’s attempts at making me feel better. Catriona doesn’t like me on her side of the bed, but perhaps tonight she’ll let me cuddle into her back…

‘Are you okay, Mum?’ Mary Jane places a tiny hand on my chest and pats it gently. Her other hand dabs at my tears with a tissue.  ‘Are you thinking of Papa?’ Her sympathy reflects an intuitive perception beyond her years.

These last few months have seen Dad deteriorate physically and mentally. At 76 years old, he’s a comparatively young man, in a society where we are being told seventy is the new sixty. However, an inexplicable, inexorable, inexpiable struggle with dementia is faced daily and I revisit the fear and pain of that long ago night each time a piece of music, a cooking smell, a photograph, a snatch of conversation conjures vivid images as if burnt into memory with a branding iron. Memories of a strong loving dad, not the shell of a man I visit in hospital or the nursing home where he resides and where I visit my future – perhaps. None of us has a crystal ball or knows how we’ll age!

The storm eases and the grandfather clock in the hall chimes seven o’clock. ‘Yes darling, I think about Papa all the time.’

The storm is over. Mary Jane eases from my grip. She kisses me again and notes my tear-stained face with concern. ‘I’m always thinking of Papa,’ I whisper.  She wraps her nine-year-old arms around my shoulders and buries her head into my neck, squeezing as tightly as she can.

‘I love you, Mum; I’m sorry about Papa. I wish he was safe with Jesus.’ My body wilts and I unashamedly sob just as I did all those decades ago.

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A Pool Of Memories

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All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

This week, I asked my students to write about summer and gave them a selection of writing prompts. As I reflect on the lesson I remembered various summer activities and memories from childhood.

A few years ago some beancounter or councillor in the City of Croydon looked at the prime land taken up by Croydon Memorial Pool and decided rather than maintain the pool, it could be sold. The public outcry that followed the suggestion, retained the pool, which was built as a memorial to honour those who fought in the Second World War. I have an emotional attachment to Croydon swimming pool, a place that contributed to an idyllic childhood, although,  now living in Mordialloc and in close proximity to a beautiful beach,

Dad’s sister, Chrissie, met us at Station Pier when we arrived in Australia, on December 16th 1962, and the first piece of information she imparted to excite us about our future home was its closeness to a newly opened Olympic-sized swimming pool. Our journey from Scotland, on the month-long voyage aboard SS Orion, gave me my first experience of a swimming pool and along with three siblings, I attempted to swim. Accustomed to the joys of water play and poolside fun, the thought of continuing sessions on land did make our new home more inviting. (I suspect Aunt Chrissie realised this!)

Croydon, eighteen miles from Melbourne GPO and even further from the nearest beach, was considered ‘the sticks’  and for those living in the outer suburbs, summers were long and hot. A public swimming pool, therefore, considered a tremendous community asset for hundreds of children to spend hundreds of hours creating carefree memories.

The egalitarian pool open to everyone regardless of income or generation. Days spent there helped us enjoy adjusting to our new country and to cope with the culture shock of a sweltering Christmas, instead of sleet and snow.

Working class people rarely went on vacation, so the Croydon pool a wonderful alternative to driving the hour or two to the closest coastal beaches of Seaford and Edithvale. No freeways then.

That first summer, we attended the pool almost daily establishing a pattern of regular visits that continued for several years. Each day seemed like a holiday, especially with the crowd that our family and friends made. Fortunately, the entry cost minimal – there may even have been a discount for family groups, I can’t remember. I know we shared a locker, which caused ructions at times if people wanted to go home early and the keeper of the key resented getting out of the water! This sign should probably have been put at the entrance of the pool!

images-1Ignorant of skin cancer people lay smeared with coconut or baby oil, sunbaking on the grass or lying on the concrete surrounds. There were few trees in the early days with those planted still to mature. I recall many sleepless nights with painful burning skin despite mum’s home remedies of vinegar or cold tea compresses. No sunscreen then either.

A few exhausting hours playing at the pool made a walk home in the heat unattractive. We planned visits to coincide with Dad’s shifts or so someone else’s parents could pick us up. With no seat belt rules and few cars on the road, it was amazing how many kids could be crushed into Austin A30s, Morris Minors, Ford Consuls, FJ Holdens or Dad’s Vanguard Utility. We still arrived home hot and sweaty with the cooling benefits of the pool undone, but not as tired if we’d walked!

Mum and Dad were sticklers for ‘no swimming for an hour after you’ve eaten.’ My father’s older brother, John drowned in Corpus Christi in 1927, while serving at sea as an engineer. It was thought he took cramps because he went swimming too soon after a meal.

In addition, my father lived with a personal memory of a traumatic incident from his childhood when he nearly drowned. Therefore, our time at the pool regulated and rules enforced without compromise. Negotiated longer periods for swimming meant going mid-morning and leaving mid-afternoon. We may miss out catching up with chums and went hungry until we returned home; the only sustenance being a frozen Sunny Boy, or Choc Wedge, bought with locker refund money.

Our melting frozen treats held between soft wrinkled fingers, made us fly magnets. We’d sit on the kerb outside the pool waiting to be picked up, competing to see who could kill the most flies with our thongs. Mao Zedong would have been proud of us. Under his ‘four harms’ strategy 1958-62 he urged citizens to kill flies, mosquitoes, rats and sparrows, the four pests that damaged crops. The great campaign almost eliminated the common housefly as the Chinese swatted with zest.

We certainly shared their enthusiasm and aimed a death blow at every fly or mosquito we came across. Dad, who refused to wear thongs, laughed at us, saying, ‘ killing flies the best use for those stupid flip flops!’

Days at the pool hold magical memories: meeting friends at weekends or holidays, mixing with kids from different schools, swimming, diving, playing games and showing off our healthy physiques. Not everyone had the telephone connected, not everyone had a family car, opportunities for meeting and talking outside school hours were few.

Many romances started – and ended –  at the pool. The era of the ‘itsy bitsy teeny weeny’ bikini upon us, although bathers in the 1960s didn’t reveal the flesh of later fashions. However, Speedos were at the height of their popularity and once wet never left much to the imagination. Of course, ex-PM, Tony Abbott has made ‘budgie smugglers’ famous!

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I made my one and only dive from a diving board at Croydon Pool—the small diving board, of course. I lacked the courage to do anything but jump off the big diving board and I only did that once. Through adult eyes, how small those boards look, yet the climb to the top of the ladder and the panic of spluttering chlorinated spume after hitting the water and scrabbling to return to the surface, still haunts me. As does the sting of bellyflops.

Herald certificate 1964

I passed the Herald Learn To Swim Certificate by swimming the 25 yards across the Croydon Pool and even managed to get my Junior Certificate after doing a rather pathetic dive in old clothes from the pool’s edge. Never good enough to be in the school swimming sports, I do remember sitting on the concrete steps cheering my brothers until hoarse. At one stage there were five McInnes’s at Croydon High School and we were all in Surrey House so I would have been waving yellow streamers.

The houses at school named after English counties: Surrey (yellow), Ashburton (red), Guildford (green) and Kent (blue), a veritable chanting rainbow around the pool.

Not a water baby, I preferred the gentle introduction of a dip in the toddler’s pool where the water warmed quickly on a hot day compared to being pushed into the freezing water of the big pool or splashed unmercifully if you tried to ease gradually down the steps at the side.

On some days, Croydon Pool so crowded, that the only safe way to enter the water was sliding into the pool from the edges. Many times an accidental knock left me gasping because I landed in the pool before I was psychologically prepared for the water temperature.

The shallow end of the pool the spot for one of our favourite games – diving for pennies. If we were broke someone would unpin their locker key from their togs and we’d dive for that. We never seemed to tire of playing tag or challenging each other to underwater tricks or races across the pool.

The sensation and taste of chlorinated water bubbling up my nostrils still vivid as we dared to venture into deeper water.  I can recall the ache in lungs as I struggled to complete laps rather than be stranded treading water somewhere in the pool out of my depth. The sandpaper roughness of the sides of the pool and the pain of scraped skin another not so pleasant memory.

Everyone skylarked, even though attendants seemed to really have eyes in the back of their heads and order ‘naughty’ children to take ‘time out’ or ‘be warned’. When bikinis became fashionable there was more than one embarrassing moment as girls were ‘dacked’, or had their tops untied.

Those dolphins who could swim underwater for an amazing length of time played pranks that sent excited squeals and gales of laughter reverberating across the pool, especially if they forced their way through your legs when least expected to tip you over – and under.

Several generations learnt to swim, socialise and have fun at the Croydon Pool. Now more than fifty years from my childhood and many homes have backyard pools, multiple family cars, and the time and money to travel to beaches or resorts. Croydon is no longer considered ‘the sticks,’ but has been absorbed into Melbourne’s urban sprawl.

However, I hope others value their memories of days spent at Croydon Pool and ensure it’s always a community asset.

Today,  schoolchildren, pensioner aerobic classes, toddlers having their first taste of water outside the bathtub, and anyone else cooling off or exercising must be happy the pool is there.

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Photograph by Graeme Saunders

Aaah, summer – that long anticipated stretch of lazy, lingering days, free of responsibility and rife with possibility. It’s a time to hunt for insects, master handstands, practice swimming strokes, conquer trees, explore nooks and crannies, and make new friends.

Darrell Hammond.

Summer days Enjoying the Present, Pondering the Past and Looking Forward.

Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.

From the television show The Wonder Years
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Yesterday, I caught up with a writer friend who can no longer come to our workshop nights because she works late afternoon shifts to fit in with caring for her 89 year old mother. It was a lovely morning exploring her suburb of Edithvale, or Edie as the locals refer to the seaside town, two train stops away from Mordialloc, on the Frankston railway line.

I enjoyed hearing her praise Edie; see her smile with pride when relating stories about her love for the place. We both appreciated the blessing of living in a beautiful and safe area. We sampled tea in two different cafés, starting off at the one by the beach and having another cuppa in one ‘up the street’. We explored and grabbed bargains at St Vinnie’s Opportunity Shop while I absorbed her local knowledge.  To learn about a place from someone who loves it, to see through their eyes, a great way to explore the unfamiliar. I was pleased she still writes and keeps a journal, recording stories, events, thoughts on books she reads and films she sees –  no lull in our conversation or awkward silence as we chatted about authors and poets. A great catch-up even although we don’t see each other as often as before!

We shared admiration for Philip Larkin, but I was able to introduce her to Roger McGough.

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Mecurial Melbourne decided to give us a taste of winter as we sat huddled in the beachside café watching the wild sea. Not alone,  venturing seaward we laughed as three preschool children entertained onlookers by racing along the beach, playing chasie, throwing seaweed at each other and exclaiming at shells and stones discovered. Having uninhibited fun as children do, in-between returning to the table to interrupt the conversation of their  mothers  and remind them to ‘Look at me, Mum! Look what I found.’

Their joie de vivre triggered a memory of the first time I visited a beach in Melbourne with my brothers and sisters. We’d migrated  from Scotland in the summer of 1962. The pictures taken at Seaford, a beach in close proximity to Edie. No doubt, we would have driven by this place, or even stopped to sample the swimming here too, all those years ago. Another newly-arrived Scots family accompanied us – the pictures show a crowd of lily-white bodies excited about being in a warm sea!

img367   first swim in oz at seaford

I thought too of the days spent on Mordialloc beach with Anne and Mary Jane.

ScanI even recalled memories of visiting Pencil Point in Largs for that one day of the year we could call summer on the west coast of Scotland! (An old Andy Stewart joke – ‘of course, I remember summer! It was a Thursday!’)

I’m sure most people, if they sit in a café by the sea, could conjure memories of childhood, or of their children growing up, so if you are a writer don’t forget your pen and notebook! Relax and enjoy the aroma of fresh tea or coffee, listen to the rhythm of music, birdsong, voices, the sea – whatever surrounds you. Write what you see, hear, touch, feel; what you think, what you remember, what story you want to share…

The Shell
Mairi Neil

The sea a bright smudge of paint
reflects the powder blue sky,
now dotted with wisps of clouds
as if a child applied sunscreen –
long smears and uneven dollops.
My daughters prance in the shallows
collect shells and splash each other.
Laughter and joie de vivre contagious.
Tiny hands tremble with excitement
and clutch a pretty conch shell.

Let’s listen to the ocean, I whisper…

Childhood fantasies return as I
hear lapping waves caress the shore,
recall the whorls and serrated edges
of a giant shell sitting by the fireplace,
in a Scottish home. A relic of the sea;
frills worn smooth by tidal dances.
Children fascinated, imagination inspired.
The salmon pink interior, examined ––
What creature abandoned this home?
The answer forgotten, but not the whoosh
and echo of ocean waves.

The girls pocket their treasures.                                                              DSC_3702
Walking home, I share the story
of a bleached skeleton from the Irish Sea
transplanted 12,000 miles to Australia,
along with other family treasures.
Science suggests ambient noise –
not the whispers of distant seas,
but in the soothing songs of shells
Life’s mystique remains, and the girls
ponder connections to distant lands,
Life’s mysteries; the vastness of the sea.

Shell Cinquain
Mairi Neil

Shell
robust, resilient
dazzling, whorling, adorning
eternal colourful valuable mysterious
Dowry

Memory is a child walking along a seashore. You never can tell what small pebble it will pick up and store away among its treasured things.

Pierce Harris, Atlanta Journal