Some of the happiest times I remember from childhood were the extended meal times. The evenings, when we sat around the table, ignoring the dishes in the sink, as we listened to Dad and Mum share stories about Papa, Dad’s father. A character with a larger than life personality who lived with us when I was born although I only remember the repeated stories.
I never really ‘knew’ my grandparents – Mum’s mother died in 1927, her father died 1939 and Dad’s mother died 1940.
Papa lived with us until he died in 1956 aged 81 years. I was three years old. My sister, Catriona who was six years old at the time, appears to be the only one of us with clear memories of him.
I have to rely on the scraps of stories I can recall (oh, how I wish I’d taken notes at the time) from those nights when Dad entertained us with the escapades of ‘the old man’ and Mum repeated Papa’s reminisces when she cared for him after his strokes.
The modern generation with their mobile phones, capable of instant photos and videos, may take the time to create vivid ‘living’ archives or will they delete or forget to backup the important family history?
Perhaps they’ll find themselves in decades time wishing like me, that their memory was better?
Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.
I feel privileged to be teaching Life Stories & Legacies at Godfrey Street and my other creative writing classes because I get to write in class too. I can dig deep into memory or imagination and it’s amazing what stories are triggered by the prompts.
In the last term this year, when we returned from the September holidays, I fashioned a lesson around “WATER” because we’d had an inordinate amount of rain and the media was full of stories about floods – a great setting for drama as well as life stories.
Below is a fraction of the brainstorming we came up with:
Floods have been in the news – have you ever experienced a flood? Know anyone who has?
Write about the experience or put your characters into a flood.
Or consider the following, and write the memory the words or phrase evokes, in an anecdote, essay, story or poem:
a bubble bath,
a puddle – did you own gumboots?
a storm-blown lake,
a calm green sea,
a child’s wading pool
an overflowing sink
a broken washing machine
a leaky tap
a spilt or empty dog’s bowl
a basin for soaking aching feet
bathing a baby/child for the first time
bathing an aged parent
bathing someone with a high temperature
It is always a surprise and a delight what memories are triggered and what the writers produce once the pen starts moving.
From this prompt, I remembered a story Dad had told about Papa. I hope I’ve done it justice.
A Soothing Sunday Soaking
Papa’s feet always ached and he often pondered the culprit.
Was it the years encased in protective hobnail boots as he shovelled tonnes of coal into the cavernous, hungry mouths of steam trains?
Five – nine tonnes a day when he was a fireman – no wonder there was never a scrap of fat on his bones!
When he qualified as a locomotive driver, he rarely sat on the metal block that passed as a stool. Instead, he’d stand, head tilted out of the window to see round the treacherous tracks of the Highlands, or the myriad junctions, including cluttered Glasgow Central.
One misread signal and people’s lives put at risk – 300 tonnes of engine and carriages pack one helluva punch! No wonder, Papa kept on his toes; the hours of standing no help to his feet.
Maybe it was just that – always being on his feet. Rain, hail, sleet, or snow… whatever the weather he trudged to work.
A five-mile walk there and five miles walk back from the railway yards. Trains, the main form of public transport in Scotland and they didn’t drive themselves. The rostered crew taking out the first train on their own transport-wise.
Twelve-hour shifts common and often Papa was away for several days if trains took goods and people north.
Unsociable shifts rendered bus timetables inconvenient, and in the era when not many working class men could afford a car, ‘Shanks’ pony’ (own feet or legs) the only reliable transport!
For part of his working life, Papa had a bicycle, if the weather suited, but once his sons started high school and apprenticeships, the family bicycle a precious commodity. He took his turn like everyone else but sometimes shifts, or the weather, didn’t go according to plan.
When he wasn’t working for Caledonian and later British Rail, part of his leisure time used to turn over soil, plant vegetables, and weed his allotment. The fruits of his labour supplemented the diet of his household of nine, or more.
Highland-born, my grandparents ensured ‘extras’ always had food and board. Relatives or friends visiting or looking for work in the city, highlanders down on their luck and needing help. Papa and Granny’s generosity and traditional hospitality well-known in Greenock.
Needless to say, Papa’s feet rarely still or rested, and even when he shed his work boots for slippers, the feet still encased. Scottish weather not conducive to bare feet freedom in or out of the house.
However, there was one luxury for his aching feet and Sunday was the day he indulged!
His religious beliefs respected the Sabbath and made it a work free day. He let others chase the penalty rates, and he traded Sunday for a day of rest so he could attend his Gaelic church, ‘the Wee Free’.
On Sunday afternoons, before the evening walk, and after the traditional roast dinner, he’d remove his socks and shoes, roll up his trousers, slip off his braces, remove cufflinks and studs, and turn up his shirt sleeves. Tie and waistcoat already abandoned.
He’d collect the Gaelic newspapers sent from his native Skye, and donning his reading glasses, relax into the most comfortable armchair in the parlour.
The ritual sacrosanct! No one in the household needed a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign.
In a basin of warm water with a generous amount of Epsom Salts added, Papa soaked his feet and relaxed. The minerals penetrated deep into his bones, and a rare, euphoric smile grew while he puffed on his pipe and leafed through newspaper stories to catch up with life on his beloved Isle of Skye.
This was how the Wee Free minister found him one Sunday afternoon when he called in unexpectedly and Papa refused to remove his feet from the basin, or get ‘dressed’!
The incident shattered domestic bliss for a week as Granny railed at her embarrassing husband.
Why did he refuse to dress properly for the Reverend?
How will she show her face to the neighbours when the story gets out – and it surely will! Tenements offered little privacy.
Did someone doing God’s work need to see misshapen toes and ugly feet? Not to mention braces hanging loose, shirt tails, no jacket or tie…
What was Papa thinking?
To treat the minister as if he was a nobody…
Now Papa helped found the National Union of Railwaymen, he admired Scottish socialist and the first Labour Member of Parliament, Keir Hardy. He disregarded class and hierarchies.
President of An Comunn Gàidhealach, the Highland Society of Greenock (member of the radical Federation of Celtic Societies) he fought on behalf of the dispossessed and dislocated highlanders and islanders. He didn’t care ‘one iota’ what the minister thought.
The bathing of aching feet, in his own home, non-negotiable.
The Reverend might learn to be more courteous next time and wait to be invited.
Papa remained ‘on his feet’ and worked until 72 years of age, driving ammunition and supply trains for the war effort. His robust health a rarity for a working man in the 1940s.
His larger than life personality left a legacy of many stories of his idiosyncrasies for future generations –this is but one!
All families have stories and memories, reminding us that behind the glass photo frames or plastic pages of an album the people once lived, laughed, worked and played – knowing their lives, we might better understand our own.
I could have done with listening to one of Earl Nightingale‘s inspirational speeches over the last couple of days as I tried to upload the already formatted Ebooks of Mordialloc Writers’ latest anthology: Kingston My City.
I wanted to complete the dream (promise) of making the digital version free after our group launched the hard copy on the 14th November.
I had the book formatted for EPUB and MOBI and thought all I had to do was offer it to the local library, or even have it on the city’s website and the promise would be fulfilled, plus I could publish on my blog and the group’s blog and share links.
I’m a lifelong learner but my training in the workforce began with manual typewriters and progressed to an electric golfball typewriter, which I thought amazing.
I never received any formal training on computers let alone digital publishing.
I started blogging a year ago and only know the basics. Trying to publish our digital book, I discovered that WordPress won’t accept file types EPUB and MOBI. A young man I contacted via help and “live chat” was helpful, but he could’t tell me why these files are not accepted.
“Be Prepared” a motto I should have remembered from Girl Guides.
I visited the local library and found the staff extremely helpful, but they use a particular supplier for their ebooks, who in turn has contracts with ebook vendors. The library will happily provide a link to our book, but can’t load it directly onto their system, which is understandable.
And so my disappointment but also learning continued.
What were other possibilities?
I overthink, do too much research, and procrastinate when it comes to writing. Computer decisions also suffer from these flaws! My confidence is easily shaken or disappears faster than a sinking ship. However, I don’t give up and I usually get there in the end.
I kept telling myself that many writers publish online everyday so decided to load the book onto Amazon and iAuthor with a zero price tag and then let people know through email or blog posts.
It’s embarrassing how many hours this process took. (It didn’t help when the Internet connection kept dropping out or slowing down – something that happens all too frequently now since a less than perfect NBN rollout.)
With the Kindle upload on Amazon I wanted to avoid giving my personal banking details, but ultimately had to because the Group doesn’t have an Amazon Account. Meanwhile, it turned out that it is easier to load the book onto iAuthor at zero price tag than Amazon.
The book is currently listed at $US1.99 on Amazon. It can be reduced to zero for a promotional period, but only if you haven’t listed the book with another site, which I have done! Another stumbling block on my learning curve!
I hope when I investigate further the book can be reduced to zero dollars, but this may have to wait until after New Year.
My blood pressure matched my frustration levels until a quicker and easier way to upload the book using other sites was revealed.
Within minutes I had the book loaded and available on a host of sites and as each distributor accepts the book they will notify me by email.
The fact I’m not looking for money from the book may have made it harder to publish on Amazon and easier to publish elsewhere, however the process on Draft2Digital was certainly quicker and friendlier and one I’d use again.
They have already emailed me to say the book can be downloaded from:
They will email me as the book appears on Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Scribd, Tolino and 24 Symbols. Some of these online stores I didn’t know existed!
Most sites will guide you through downloading apps to read the book but here is information that may be of use provided by the company that originally formatted our book. Useful for those who don’t own a kindle or unaware you can read ebooks on a computer:
If you have no eReader then first you must install an eReader EXE for viewing your eBook files on your computer. This is free software.
Do you have IPAD or similar device? If YES, then search “iBooks apps”; add this free app and you will have epub format
(Run this EXE, when asked email id, skip this information, after installation you will see the icon on your desktop)
OUTPUT FORMAT: .epub
(After installation you see “LIBRARY and the Add Item to Library”, click that button and go your location where you located your epub file. Open EPUB file)
KINDLE for PC (PC version) http://www.amazon.com/gp/kindle/pc/download
(Run this EXE, when asked email id, skip this information, after installation you can see icon in your desktop)
OUTPUT FORMAT: .mobi
After installation then press ENTER any Kindle format : mobi)
No doubt my education will continue because the digital world is here to stay and after 20 years and nine anthologies I believe the future for Mordialloc Writers’ Group and the individual writers will be digital publishing.
We have dipped our collective toe in the water to establish our name, let’s hope we’ll soon be swimming. Enjoy our stories, share them and please let us know if you like them.
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.
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.
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’…
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 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:
Winner of the Poetica Christi 2014 prize was another accomplished poet, 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!
This poem by editor Leigh Hay made me smile, reminiscent of the day I caught daughter MJ trimming Barbie’s hair!
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.’
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.
Recently, I was searching for a piece of writing to use in my teaching and discovered scraps of research, jotted notes of thoughts and ideas, and of course plenty of unfinished work. This piece I found started me on a journey that culminated in a short story, but it is also a snapshot of the many nights I’ve stood in my garden reflecting on how lucky I am to live in Mordialloc, pondering on the lessons I’ve learned. How different life is from what I imagined when I came to live here 31 years ago …
The woman walks along the sand from Mordialloc towards Beaumaris, within a few metres of open-air campsites once used by the Boon wurrung. Sandalled feet avoid large clusters of shells, remnants of the rich cultural life of over 2000 generations of indigenous people living here prior to Australia’s colonisation from a distant continent.
The stretch of beach as far as the eye can see is deserted, shielded from the noise of traffic and trappings of civilisation. When the pale yellow glow of the dawn lights up the sky and kisses the water, or the vivid sunset explodes in rainbow profusion, she feels connected to the timeless concept of the Aboriginal Dreaming, aches for what has been lost.
How did the Boon wurrung live as they walked these shores? What did they think when the first explorers built houses, altered the direction of the creeks and inland rivers; claimed land for fishing, cattle, sheep and market gardens?
There was joy and sharing of indigenous corroborees on the shores of Mordialloc Creek, as clans of the Eastern Kulin Nation: the Boon wurrung, Woi wurrung and Daung wurrung gathered from Westernport, Mt. Baw Baw, the Goulburn River and all places in between.
Did the tribal elders debate the effects and threat of white settlement? What guidance did they give to combat the confusion, ignorance, anger and grief of their clan? Did they consider any positive effects from the clash of cultures, or did they see through the baubles and sub standard rations of the empire builders? Did they appeal for protection to their moiety totems, the Wedge-tail Eagle Bunjil and the Australian Raven Waang, or were they as divided in their approach to the white man as the newcomers were to the Aborigines?
The woman’s house, one of many in Albert Street Mordialloc is built on an Aboriginal graveyard. Not a place the Boon wurrung chose, but rather a graveyard chosen for them. Death did not bestow equality or a place in the community cemetery; yet regardless of the colour of flesh, bleached bones and cremation returns all bodies to the Earth.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust...
Thoughts of the impermanence of mankind creep unbidden into the woman’s consciousness as she stands in her garden to watch dusk descend. The glow of moonlight and twinkling of stars helps her see more clearly, to feel a connection with the land; to reflect that in the process of the European occupation, much of the natural heritage has been disguised or destroyed.
The air is redolent with the smells of this coastal community — tangy salt, fish, and seaweed, but it is now home to a diverse society with a multitude of pasts. She breathes the eucalyptus scent of the quintessential Australian gum tree, mixed with the perfume of a riot of introduced red and white roses, tumbling over the fence. She considers a constantly changing landscape as waves of immigrants create a multicultural cosmopolitan society. A city bound train thunders past; the roar of traffic from the Nepean Highway momentarily smothers the hum of night insects, and she is aware of the persistent whine of a distant car burglar alarm.
A silvery moon, enormous in the inky sky shines high above ragged clouds and she thinks of the graves. The brilliance of the moon’s all seeing, all knowing eye illuminates the garden like a carnival; bars of light filter through dark-leaved fruit trees; evening dew glistens on the grass like teardrops. The shadow of an owl swoops past; a dog barks in the distance. Nesting doves coo mournfully.
How many people have stood where she is now and stared at the millions of miles of twinkling sky? How many more will stand here?
She ponders on the 430 plant species prior to European occupation and how more than half are now extinct. Many native land animals have disappeared and only a few, such as possums and skinks survive in the urban environment, often cursed as pests. Marine communities devastated by over-harvesting and pollution, struggle to survive, especially the shellfish so loved by the Boon wurrung.
The sounds of the night are accompanied by a cool breeze caressing her skin. Stars fade, darkness descends like a soft velvet cape and she pictures the Aboriginal Flag flapping proudly in the wind in Attenborough Park. It is comforting that in many places consultation and consideration have replaced confrontation and conflict. She hopes recorded history will acknowledge contributions and mistakes; that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities reconciled will have mutual understanding, that environmental awareness will halt destruction.
The moon smiles assurance, tomorrow is another day; another opportunity to embrace life and live in harmony with this beautiful land.
‘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.’
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 a 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‘.
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.
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!
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 diagnosis of breast cancer. Life is full of surprises, but perhaps the biggest surprise is the strength we find within when needed.
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 was 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 every day but not necessarily the writing I wanted to do. My goal of self-discipline to create time to write every day on a project I desired, 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’.
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?
” ‘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.”
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!
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 the organisation for ideas, but appreciate how the 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.
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.
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.
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.‘
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.‘
As I interviewed Mum over four years, I noticed repetition in her stories, 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 for 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
the thump of rolling pin,
scrape of metal cutter,
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!’
She puffs and pants
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 completed 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.’
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.
I’ll keep scribbling and hoping it will gel one day.
On Saturday night I couldn’t settle. A telephone call from Canberra the day before said Margaret’s death was imminent – within 24 – 48 hours. The vigil of her final hours carried out by two other friends – the remainder of our “gang of four” – sitting either side of her bed at Clare Holland House hospice each holding one of Margaret’s hands.
“You’re too far away Mum to do anything , but worry. Try and relax… we care about you.”
I started a jigsaw puzzle after my daughters insisted I focus on something pleasant. Their words of wisdom, sympathy and nurturing an appreciative role reversal.
“Remember your last few days together in January, focus on that image and all the good times you’ve shared.”
Margaret’s dying had occupied thoughts and shaken emotional equilibrium for weeks. Daily text messages or phone calls from close friends, an ever present reminder someone I’d known since teenage was dying from breast cancer – a disease my body was fighting successfully – so far. Margaret’s lobular cancer, detected too late had spread to her brain stem and groin. Life seemed unfair and good health such a lottery!
I’ve experienced grief many times, especially over the last few years. Friends and family farewelled; the most poignant goodbyes being husband John and my parents. I understand about complicated grief. For several years, I could identify with this state. I appeared to “get on with life” , but my pain never fully receded into the background or diminished. It was even physical, with a permanent pain in my heart as if a stone lodged there, pressing its weight, interrupting normal rhythm. I became the great pretender, perfecting the art of an outward smile without any inner joy.
To endure life remains, when all is said, the first duty of all living beings… If you would endure life, be prepared for death.
Thoughts and memories of those I’ve lost circle in my head on a permanent loop. Each death a reminder of the one before: I don’t believe my yearning and longing for John will ever disappear and memories of others can appear unbidden, triggered by a smell, a piece of music, a photograph, a snatch of conversation… but I do “get on with life”!
And so when the call came at 6.00am Easter Sunday, to say Margaret had died the night before, I knew exactly when the moment had come. On Saturday evening, just after ten o’clock I’d had a strong urge to go outside again and watch the progress of the lunar eclipse. As I stood watching the clear night sky, the angst and worry about Margaret’s dying dissipated. I felt she was at peace, free from suffering and earthly worries .
She breathed her last breath at 10.15pm, April 4th 2015, 25 days short of her 68th birthday. Mary Jane’s photographs capturing my thoughts that Margaret joined all the others who have gone before, including her parents. “Who would have thought dying was so difficult,” she had whispered last week, insisting she saw her parents waiting.
That waiting now over.
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.
After I received the news, Mary Jane and Anne bought me a beautiful orchid. Tall and willowy, like Margaret, a wonderful gift of life!
” To plant in Margaret’s memory, Mum.”
Later, I went for a walk by the sea with a writer friend – another life-affirming pleasure and always a solace to me. Although it’s autumn, abundant signs of fresh growth promised new life.
the calm observer
From Parkdale cafe
My garden reflects the rich tapestry of family life. The plants are a mixture of immigrant and native, just like us. Some are already memorials. Two sturdy bottlebrushes (callistemon linearis) remind me that two mothers grieve for sons. The wattle, as straight as a mast, thrives, but reminds me of a friend who died in despair. A rose from Coydon a link to the family home with Mum and Dad. There are cuttings from friends, plus birthday or appreciation plants nestling beside Mother’s Day flowers, nurtured by tiny hands.
Each has a story.
The rosemary bush by the mailbox extra special, an unexpected gift from a lady whom I‘d never met. In September 2002, when John died after a heroic struggle with debilitating lung disease, a small healthy rosemary plant arrived with prayerful condolences.
In ancient literature and folklore, rosemary is a symbol of remembrance. It’s also an emblem of fidelity with a belief that its properties improve memory. Rosemary has particular significance for Australians because it grows wild at Gallipoli.
Rosmarinus Officinalis (‘Dew of the Sea’) is an evergreen shrub of the mint family. John loved the sea and often shared stories of his 16 years in the Royal Navy. His affinity with the sea led me to scatter his ashes at Stony Point. He’ll revisit many shores, including Mordialloc. And as the girls and I travel the world we know he’s always near.
The girls made tiny sprigs of beribboned rosemary for people to take home after John’s funeral, a custom since 1584. Rosemary even gains a mention in Shakespeare’s Hamlet when Ophelia, decked in flowers said to Laertes: ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.’ Shakespeare’s plays another love John and I shared – the ties that bind. So many memory triggers…
My garden will always be a work in progress. John’s announcement in 1984 when we bought the house prophetic, ‘the garden will have to survive on neglect. There’s enough to do inside to keep me occupied for years!’ However, like love, the rosemary flourishes and many passers-by and neighbours pick sprigs for their Sunday roast and other dishes. The other plants thrive too, like me they are low maintenance!
The ‘renovator’s delight’ garden still has the original couch grass with a small clump of Strelitzia regina (Bird of Paradise) and a bluey-mauve Blue Moon rose, shrubs spectacular when in blossom. Acquired plants fit the soil and landscape of the area; flora enriching the habitat for native birds, butterflies and bees. Drought-tolerant plants minimise water use and are wildlife friendly. There is beauty inherent in the evergreen native trees and indigenous plants produce the harmony I desire – native and exotic.
Bees and butterflies buzz and flitter from agapanthus to lavender, from rosemary to geraniums. Wattlebirds feast while insects scurry on lobed dark green leaves. A ringtail possum nests nearby. Blazing red hot pokers (kniphofia) create a rainbow in autumn.
Each day as I check the mailbox, or go for a walk, the rosemary reminds me that ’flowers seem intended for the solace of ordinary humanity.’
I ponder where I’ll plant Margaret’s orchid to reflect on life and feel blessed.
Death is an absolute mystery. We are all vulnerable to it, it’s what makes life interesting and suspenseful.
Nonfiction is a very old genre. Go back to The Confessions of St. Augustine. For so long, individuals have attempted to understand how one lives and what one is to make of one’s life…
There is a bit of self-congratulations in “literary nonfiction.” One reason I prefer it is because it embeds the work in a tradition and a lineage. Instead of implying this is something new, it says this type of writing has been around for a long, long time. In English literature, there is the great tradition of the English essay, with Samuel Johnson, Hazlitt and Lamb, Robert Louis Stevenson and de Quincey, Matthew Arnold, McCauley, Carlisle, Beerbohm, and on into the twentieth century, with Virginia Woolf and George Orwell. By saying you write literary nonfiction, you’re saying that you’re part of that grand parade.
This week I’m struggling to write a piece for the celebration of the life of a dear friend, Margaret who is not expected to survive much longer, in the palliative care ward of Calvary Hospital. Too frail to be moved as planned, to Canberra’s hospice, Clare Holland House, she has been shuffled in and out of ICU, but is now in a private ward crammed with flowers and cards, where she can say goodbye to a constant stream of visitors, the attention and outpouring of love a tribute to how many lives she has touched here and overseas.
We flatted together when I lived in Canberra attending ANU, we waitressed together at the Staff Centre on campus, we shared tragedies and triumphs, attended demonstrations for Aboriginal Land Rights and Peace, shared a love of reading, history and travel. I’m eternally grateful for some of the memories we created together including some valuable life lessons on my road to maturity.
Always practical, Margaret helped me through a devastating crisis offering more than sympathy and emotional support. A few years older than my twenty years, her wisdom and care saved my life and sanity.
Her friendship, one of Life’s blessings, as was the opportunity to fly to Canberra recently and spend four days with her and some other friends, before her health deteriorated. Three friends have been stalwarts since I was eighteen, now they have a bedside vigil of indeterminate length. Thankfully, in the digital age, I’m kept informed daily – sometimes more often – via text, email, and long telephone conversations as we try to make sense of this time in our lives.
When a group of friends of many years face the disintegration of their circle, it’s like facing the imminent death of a sibling – sometimes worse because most families grow apart, develop separate lives whereas friends can be constant and consistent. My Mother, who was fond of quoting her own father used to say: God gives you your relatives, but thank God he allows you to choose your friends.
And so, living in a surreal time-zone, waiting for the inevitable telephone call, I’m frozen with indecision, grieving the loss of Margaret already and yet nurturing a minuscule fragment of hope that somehow a miracle will happen and the last six weeks have been a bad dream. It is déjà vu – my friend Caroline’s death 2001, husband John’s death 2002, Dad’s death 2005 and Mum’s death 2009 – with myriad funerals in between of friends and distant relatives. I seek solace by the sea and visit Stony Point where we’ve scattered John’s ashes and where, when it’s time, I too will feed the fishes, travel with the tides… a quiet, serene place of solitude that never seems to change…
I often visit Mordialloc foreshore and find an early morning or evening walk the most beneficial – an unsurpassed meditation time.
Mordialloc Beach 2013
The day is calm. Tranquil. A great-to-be-alive day. Eucalypts and pine trees compete with salty air and the whiff of abandoned seaweed.
The blue-green sea a mirror for fluffy clouds of whipped cream. Dainty dollops on a pale blue plate. Gulls sit or glide atop this glassy sea. Bathed in white sunlight I imagine I too drift and dream.
In the distance palm tree fronds tremble casting lacy shadows on hot sand. The clink of moorings and creak of masts drifts from the Creek and a sudden gust of wind whips sand stinging legs and face. Airborne seagulls now screeching origami kites.
A dark veil unfurls from the horizon shattering the grey-green mirror and my peaceful contemplation. Waves lap and soap around my feet as I retreat to the shelter of eucalypts and pine, the taste of salt now bittersweet.
At this point in time, creativity is at an all-time low. I’m so grateful I have students and classes to encourage and inspire me to shake out of the doldrums. Whether it is memories stirred or the confronting reminder that my breast cancer could easily metastasise like Margaret’s, or facing ageing and worrying about unfinished business, or the reminder of past losses and grief – my spirits have been depressed with energy levels just enough to complete necessary tasks – the inner well dry and desolate.
Several years ago, I started teaching memoir and classes to encourage others to record life stories and think about their legacy. In the process, I’ve written thousands of words reflecting on my own life, family history and my parents, along with poems and short stories. This blog is another way of leaving a legacy for my daughters – writing down thoughts and events, ideas, memories and dreams in essays, short stories, anecdotes and poems – like an online journal, but not just stream of consciousness or venting – more focussed on what I want to express at a particular time, or about a particular experience.
All the reading I have done about the memoir genre explains it can be about anything personally experienced, or a life event significant enough to want to retell, or it can simply be a snapshot of a moment or a description of a person, place, or thing in your life – that’s what I tell my students – and so it is true for me too!
I hope I can do justice to Margaret’s legacy when the time comes and be privileged to hear what she means to others. Eventually, the sun will shine inside me and I’ll feel joy because the sun rises each day as Mother Nature reaffirms life each morning.
The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.
Summer will end soon enough, and childhood as well.
George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
The last few weeks in class we have been discussing summer and writing to prompts. We discussed the sensory detail of smell, one often left out of writing, yet the sense that is usually the best trigger for memory.
We live in a sensory-rich world and our five senses should not be left out of our writing if we want to evoke a reaction and engage readers. In class, we brainstorm and list ideas for stories and then write whatever imagination and memory dictate.
Grilled meat – BBQ stories – bushfire experience
Citronella candles, mosquito coils – camping escapade
Chlorine, salt, mud – water adventures – seaside, river, pool, garden
Car smells – road trip
Flowers, trees, cut grass – garden and park settings
Does dust smell? – drought, hay fever
Stories set in northern or southern hemisphere, or both…
Summer in Scotland – gardens, hedgerows and fields displaying colourful wildflowers in shades of purple, white and yellow: bluebells, thistles, heather, daisies, dandelions and buttercups. A handful picked for Mum, who placed them on the kitchen windowsill in a jam jar vase.
In the 1950s, The Davaar Road gang as we were called, played outside until mums grew hoarse calling us inside for our tea, bath and bed. The long days seemed endless because of Scotland’s close proximity to the North Pole – it could be nearing midnight and yet seem like day, to be followed by a prolonged, breathtaking gloaming (twilight). Something we sorely missed when we migrated to Australia.
The area where we lived, Braeside in Greenock, aptly named because the housing scheme rose up the side of a hillside sandwiched between hills towards Loch Thom and hills overlooking Gourock. We’d climb the brae opposite our house to hunt for blackberries, ignoring thorns and nettles that tore at tender skin. The purpose of the expeditions – to fill Mum’s biggest saucepan so that she could make her bramble jam and bramble jelly. When we were old enough she let us stir the pot and I’d inhale the wonderful aroma as well as be fascinated as she used a nylon bag to strain the fruit pulp. The whole house smelled sweet and fruity, and the thought of homemade steamed puddings, jam rolls, fairy cakes and lovely jam sandwiches (jeely pieces) made any scratched arms, skint knees or bee stings worthwhile.
Most bumblebees and wasps were repelled as we clutched buckets, old pots, jam jars – any available receptacle – and filled them with the delicious, juicy bunches gathered from wild bushes. Of course, our purple stained faces and fingers testimony that many of the berries were eaten before we got home. How shocked we were when we arrived in Croydon, Australia to large tracts of land sporting lots of blackberry bushes, but the fruit off limits because the plants were considered toxic weeds and sprayed regularly!
In Scotland, if we weren’t collecting brambles we were playing ball games like rounders or lying on dewy, soft grass, the smell of the River Clyde and distant Irish Sea drifting over the brae as we made daisy chains and tested who liked butter with delicate buttercups held under chins. We giggled and made each other touch dandelions, which supposedly made you pee the bed.
Sitting on the soft fragrant heather making daisy chains we’d slice each stalk with a fingernail making an opening big enough to poke the next daisy’s head through and continue this until a chain was long enough to be a necklace or bracelet. Glamour plus!
To determine whether a boy loved you or not, we pulled petals from the daisies one at a time, chanting ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ until the poor flower completely mangled fell to the ground. Flora vandalism!
The dandelion, another flower we rarely picked for posies and guessing games because being seen with them was risky to your reputation! We called dandelions pee-the-beds and to be seen touching them meant you’d be accused of wetting the bed!
The tiny yellow flower, the scourge of gardeners who regard them as weeds, but golden seas sprout in fields, parks, gardens and road verge across Scotland. Beekeepers, the only people happy about the glorious yellow carpets, because the protein-rich dandelion pollen and nectar a boon for bees. Each dandelion plant can produce 20,000 feather-light seeds, which are blown on the wind to colonise gardens in a short period of time. They thrive in nutrient-rich soil and destroy other flowers by encroaching on their habitats. No wonder gardeners get annoyed.
When in the puffball stage, we used the dandelions to tell the time – blowing the seeds into the air and chanting whatever wish we wanted and it would be granted in how many hours ‘the clock’ said.
Although classified as weeds, dandelions are also edible and can be used for cooking and medicinal purposes.The white sap from its stem said to cure warts and dandelion tea supposedly helps calm stomach aches. The plant, which is rich in potassium, zinc and calcium, also used by some herbalists to treat skin conditions, asthma, low blood pressure, poor circulation, ulcers, constipation, colds, hot flushes and has a diuretic effect when eaten. A long way from the stigma of ‘pee-the-beds’!
Only in summer did we taste ice-lollies bought from Peter’s shop, a place hosting delicious smells from jars of lollies and other goodies: musk, mint, aniseed, liquorice and other pervading sugary and syrupy smells. With money tight buying sweeties was truly a rare treat.
Summer holidays, the time to collect firewood to build a bonfire for Guy Fawkes Night to make a guy and drag him around the neighbourhood on a bogey (homemade go-cart) yelling ‘penny for the guy’ to amass money for fireworks: Catherine Wheels, Sky Rockets, Air Bombs, Sparklers, but mainly penny bungers. Sometimes we couldn’t wait for November and the acrid smell of gunpowder in the backyard tipped off our parents we were exploding fireworks without their permission or supervision. Another custom sensibly abandoned in Australia because of the fire danger, but these pictures typical of my childhood were found in the Geoff Charles Collection.
Playful Seasons Mairi Neil
In dewy meadow, Spring flowers bright
Buttercups bloom, a magnificent sight
While strolling upon this carpet of gold
A test is remembered from days of old
A yellow flower waved under the chin
Do you like butter, we asked with a grin.
In dewy meadow, under strong Summer sun
Childhood revisited as we have some fun
Clumps of wild daisies smile up at me
Their perfect white petals fluttering free
A bunch of daisies transformed with love
Necklace and bracelet feather soft as a dove
In dewy meadow, Autumn leaves fall
Dandelions transform into puffballs
With gentle breaths, we blow and blow
Discovering Time as spores drift like snow
One o’clock, two o’clock –– maybe three
Until a naked stem is all we can see.
In dewy meadow, Winter walks are brisk
The puddles ice over putting feet at risk
I spy a toddler wearing bright rubber boots
Splashing in puddles, not giving two hoots
A flashback to childhood appears in the rain
It’s worth wet socks to feel carefree again.
What does summer smell like to you? Put the smells in context – what memories do they trigger? Create a poem, a memoir, or story with fictional characters – have some writing fun.