Rituals and Reminiscing For Auld Lang Syne

Ceremonies cemented the impression that humanity, not chaos, reigned over the universe.

Brian Herbert

We’ve farewelled another year and welcomed 2016. I look back on my post this time last year and the opening paragraph still rings true:

Like many people, particularly in my age group, I wonder where the year has gone and if it’s true that it disappears more quickly the older you are!
If I still lived in Scotland I’d celebrate Hogmanay in the traditional manner http://www.scotland.org/whats-on/hogmanay/ and in years gone by I’ve kept up several of the cultural traditions, but confess to having a quiet evening at home last night and allowing my partying daughters to come home and bring in the lump of coal I left at the front door. Actually it was a briquette (a lump of compressed coal) from the family home at Croydon. Mum gave it to me to use specifically for the ‘first foot’ over the door on Hogmanay, when we moved to Mordialloc over 30 years ago.

This time of year lends itself to reflection as well as remembering cultural quirks, but because it is a ‘new’ year, it still has to unfold, be lived and stories made. I’ll continue to find inspiration and tranquility under the evening sky whether it’s walking the dog, or putting rubbish in the bins or just standing for a few minutes alone staring above at the never-ending twinkling canopy – some habits never change.
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The preparation for Hogmanay always entails cleaning the house and ridding cupboards of unnecessary clutter, tidying up the garden. Physical examples of renewal,  like a journal writer starting each day on a fresh page.

On Christmas night, we experienced the last full moon for 2015 and as Anne and I walked Aurora around the neighbourhood, I tried to capture the moon with my camera phone:

 

December 25, 2015 – Mairi Neil

The moon gleams white, luminescent,
No drifting wisps of shape-shifting cloud.
The man in the moon yet to appear
With his benign expression,
Dark, deep set eyes and
Hint of moustachioed smile.
Tonight a vibrant sky, pink-tinged
While apricot and lilac hues waft to
Colour the rooftops, soften pavements
Breathe beauty into shadows dancing
On bricks, tiles, concrete, and steel.
A flock of parrots settle among
The topmost branches of a stoic gum
Protecting a grey water tank.
Suddenly, as if a giant hand shakes the tree,
Red breasts flash and with squeals and flaps
The birds twirl through the air –
Green wings spinning like frisbees.
Each night my eyes discover something new
A colour never seen, a glorious streak across the sky
Trees dressed in forty-shades of green
A Creator’s vision this glowing orb is perhaps
Designed to magnify…

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Parrots proliferate in Mordy now – they moved in during the last drought and stayed.

In the quiet of the evening I often share significant memories of childhood and at this time of year it is New Year rituals. Family stories deserving to be heard and passed on:

In Scotland, after Mum’s frenzy of cleaning and baking, we savoured her ginger wine and blackberry wine, both non-alcoholic made from essence. How grown-up we felt, drinking ‘wine’ like the adults! (Although they were on whisky after the bells announced at midnight and Auld Lang Syne sung.)

When I returned to Scotland in 1973, at the top of the long list of items missed and to be brought from ‘the auld country’ was ginger and blackcurrant essence. I managed to procure 6 bottles from the local Co-op and Hogmanay ’74 was a good year in Croydon, Australia. A quick Google search and homesick Scots throughout the world have a similar childhood memory and taste for ‘oor ain special Hogmanay treat.’

As far back as I can remember, my parents’ parties were legendary. Not hard to do when you are part of a large family – a crowd’s already there!

Each Hogmanay, in Greenock, carpets were rolled up, Andy Stewart and Jimmy Shand records (78s, later LPs) stacked on the radiogram, and reels and jigs shook the house’s foundations. Dad’s brother, Alec and family came over from Rhu, neighbours popped in, some of Dad’s railway co-workers and even people from their St Ninian’s House Church group.

Mum’s feast prepared and eaten before midnight, included clootie dumpling (cooked in a clout /cloth) where we all fought to have a slice with the skin attached – delicious, hot or cold. There are many variations of this traditional treat:

Clootie Dumpling

250g (8oz) plain flour
125g (4oz) margarine
75g (4oz) currants
75g (4 oz) sultanas
75g (3oz) soft brown sugar (or substitute treacle)
2 lightly beaten eggs
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
I teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon bicarb soda
1 tablespoon golden syrup
3/4 cup buttermilk

(extra flour for cloth to produce the much-loved thick skin)

  • In a large bowl mix the flour, and softened margarine, fruit, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and bicarb of soda. Add the beaten eggs and syrup, then stir in sufficient buttermilk to form a soft batter.
  • Dip a pudding cloth into boiling water and sink it in a bowl large enough to hold the mixture, dredge lightly with flour and spoon in the mixture.
  • Draw the cloth together at the ends and tie tightly with string – make sure you leave room for expansion during cooking!
  • Place a saucer in the bottom of a large saucepan and lift the dumpling into the pan of boiling water and simmer for 3-4 hours.

Clootie Dumpling is usually served hot with cream, ice-cream or custard but is delicious cold, spread with butter or margarine and jam. Mum made a clootie at other celebrations throughout the year, especially for Dad’s birthday.

One memory of Hogmanay in early 1960s Scotland stands out over all others.

As usual we children were the first awake, and of course headed straight to the toilet. The bathroom/toilet was upstairs near all our bedrooms, but the door was locked. A quick head count and checking of beds and we knew it must be an adult inside. We waited.

And waited. Discreet tapping. No answer. Whispering then louder tapping and talking. Cousins awake as well as siblings. Lots of whispering and tapping. No answer.

Fear of admonition if we made a noise or woke hungover adults forgotten when desperation kicked in. The boys could go outside even if it was ‘brass monkey weather‘ but Catriona and I needed the bathroom. (Yes, all our cousins were male. Of three brothers, Dad was the only one to produce female offspring.)

We jiggled the door handle but couldn’t open the door. We peeked through the keyhole.

‘Uncle Alec’s asleep on the floor.’

‘His head’s against the toilet and his feet must be blocking the door.’

‘Why doesn’t he wake up?’

‘He’s drunk.’

‘Or dead.’

‘We better get Dad.’

We didn’t need to fetch Dad. Trying to be ‘as quiet as church mice’  we  ‘made enough noise to wake the dead’.

Dad couldn’t rouse his older brother either so one of the boys was sent up the drainpipe to climb in through the outside window and open the door. Dad helped an embarrassed Uncle Alec to bed and we had a story to share on Hogmanay for years, embedded in family history.

 

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Years later an incident in 1970s Croydon, Australia not forgotten, especially by Mum and Dad. A sizeable crowd gathered in a circle in our lounge room waiting for the clock to strike twelve. Large enough to require two bottles of whisky for the all-important dram.

Dad, the host, had his favoured drop – Teacher’s, a smooth malt. Uncle Bill had a bottle of traditional Bells.

Midnight announced, Auld lang Syne sung, the first foot (my dark-haired older sister, Catriona) welcomed over the door carrying the lump of coal. The bottles opened for everyone to receive ‘the water of life‘.

Half the room sipped and smiled, the other half looked sour or stunned. Mum’s Highland friend Christine McDonald blurted, ‘What’s this? Bloody water!’

Dad had finished pouring and gulped his whisky, which he immediately spat out. The room suddenly abuzz with more than Christine examining their glasses, re-tasting and then looking for a refill of ‘proper whisky.’  Thankfully, there were always plenty of bottles available at Scots/Irish gatherings.

An examination of the bottle of Teacher’s discovered in fine print “For Display purposes Only“.

Soon everyone joked about ‘bringing in the New Year with cold tea’ but my Father’s  laugh was restrained. As the host he felt deep embarrassment.

Dad had a mercurial temper at the best of times so Mum thought it wise she return the bottle when the shops reopened.

How it came to be sold a mystery never solved and the Manager of Supa Value Supermarket’s bottleshop offered apologies.  A replacement given without fully understanding the cultural significance of what my Father perceived as a Hogmanay horror story!

Mum slid into the car beside Dad, related the manager’s apologies and handed over the bottle of whisky. ‘Is this the right Teacher’s?’

‘As long as it’s not cold tea it’ll be fine,’ Dad said with a grin, removing the bottle from the brown paper bag, ‘there’s no such thing as bad scotch – just some are better than others.’ Almost immediately, his dark brown eyes lost their twinkle, the smile became a frown.

‘What the…’ he exploded, and passed the bottle back to Mum pointing to the label. In fine print it said, “For Display purposes Only”.

At least they hadn’t moved from the parking lot, but it was a less conciliatory Mum who returned the second bottle. She gave a very embarrassed manager ‘a piece of her mind’ and a lecture on shelving stock. The second replacement bottle checked and double-checked before she left the shop.

Apparently, lightning does strike twice!

A third funny memory of Hogmanay takes place back in Scotland, but this time in 1997. My girls and I stayed a few days with relatives in Kilmarnock. This was the first Scottish New Year the girls experienced (and to date, the only one!)

Thick snow lay outside and inside Valerie and Jim’s cosy house a party was in full swing. Most of Val and Jim’s friends had two or three children, all as excited as my girls at being allowed to stay up late to dance and play. All of them taking advantage of distracted adults, more relaxed than usual.

Midnight neared and a scramble to round up everyone spread throughout the house. Jim slipped out the back door with a lump of coal to first foot at the front. The bells came and went, Auld Lang Syne sung, the children transformed the circle into a jig. Few people were interested in filling their glasses, the music turned up a notch or two and happy chaos reigned.

We forgot about Jim.

No one heard the knocking at the door. John rang from England to wish us ‘happy new year’.

Suddenly,  Valerie asked where Jim had got to.

Oops!

Jim stood at the front door, teeth chattering and icicles forming on his slippers, ‘I knew you’d eventually remember, ‘ he said with an alcohol induced smile. Warm hugs all round and an extra kiss from Valerie made up for being abandoned.

Anne and Mary Jane still talk about that Hogmanay and giggle. It’s good to have a happy memory because unfortunately Valerie passed away in August 2014  after developing a rapidly progressive myeloma (bone cancer). By then she had two lovely girls of her own, heartbreakingly young to be left motherless.

Perhaps one day they’ll visit Australia and take away a happy Hogmanay memory from us.

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A final traditional Scots greeting for 2016:

Lang may yer lum reek – happiness, good health and the prosperity you seek!

Nurturing Nature The Way Forward

Happy-earth-day

World Environment Day was celebrated on June 5, but perhaps celebrated is the wrong word when you examine the state of  Earth. These statistics and photographs are quite depressing. How I wish people could appreciate and value nature like poet Joyce Kilmer.

His poem, Trees,  although criticised for being simplistic and sentimental is a classic that everyone remembers and quotes – many writers would wish for such an enviable record !

Frankston copy Frankston

The poem automatically springs to mind whenever I am in a botanical garden, a forest, a wood, or just walking down the street!

Trees  by Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

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HAIKU by Mairi Neil

Tree blossoms despite
Salty air and sparse rocky soil
Resilience plus!

Sturdy trees stand firm
Withstanding storms their purpose
Golden harvests win

Cherry blossom time
Nature blooms in profusion
Fat and happy ducks

ducks Aspendale spring in suburbs

I don’t know when I became enamoured with trees -I think that’s one of the gifts I’ve received from living in Australia. My early years growing up in a housing estate in Scotland didn’t contain many trees!

However, living in Croydon in 1962, we were surrounded by trees to climb, to lie under for shade, to feast off when plums and apples grew, to strip and use as make-believe spears and guns in our childish games or have plum and apple fights, and to harvest as kindling and firewood for Mum’s Raeburn stove and the living room fireplace.

We took these magnificent living structures for granted, used and abused them, rarely appreciated their beauty, or significance for the planet’s survival because of their amazing capacity to stay alive, regenerate and survive against all odds.  Knowledge, appreciation and inspiration came later.

Aussie Childhood
Mairi Neil

I grew up in bushy Croydon
the trees grew thick around,
milk and bread delivered
to a tuneful clip-clop sound.

Kookaburras laughed and swooped
to steal our pet cat’s food
it wasn’t Snappy Tom, of course
but ‘roo meat, raw and good.

The streets were mainly dirt tracks
a collection of pot holes and clay,
most people walked or cycled
and even strangers said, ‘gidday’.

Our weatherboard house peeled
the corrugated tin roof leaked too,
a verandah sagged under honeysuckle,
the rooms added as family grew.

Mosquito nets caused claustrophobia
possums peered down chimneys three,
but the dunny banished down the back
the most terrifying memory, for me.

Electricity brightened inside the house
so torch or candlelight had to suffice
night noises and shadows of the bush
and the smelly dunny, were not nice!

The path to the toilet lined with trees
growing tall to seek the sun
but when the dark cloak of night donned
branches became hands from which to run

During the day our block was heaven
definitely a children’s adventure-land
blue tongues, geckos, tadpoles and frogs
all shared our world so grand.

A snake the greatest danger
or a bull ant bite on the toe
a truly carefree wonderful time
my rose-coloured glasses show.

When I came to live in Mordialloc in 1984, I was an adult, soon to become a young mother. When John and I began to renovate our new home, plus create a garden, I not only noticed the trees, but became fascinated and attached to them. Involvement in a local conservation group meant I was even more captivated, not only interested in the environment, but ecology. I formed an emotional attachment to Mother Nature.

The Chestnut Tree
Mairi Neil

We cut down our chestnut tree today,
a sadness gripped my heart –
will the pain ever go away?

The tree was diseased, slowly dying
Attempted cures failed –
we stopped trying.

It was like saying goodbye
to a much-loved friend …
Is this how we all end?

The tree dominated our backyard
soft green foliage a contrast
to fruit, spiky and hard.

Veil-like shadows of leaves heralded spring
lazy days sitting beneath branches
listening to blackbirds sing

The baby lying on a blanket mesmerised
while a breeze rustled leaves and
birds and bees danced through the trees

In summer it delighted with endless charm
a shady spot for the wading pool
sun’s rays could not harm.

Warm balmy evenings, relaxing in easy chairs
sipping cool drinks at sunset
peace and tranquility, forgetting cares

Cherished memories; strong boughs hanging low
hooking the toddler’s swing
pushing the old tyre, oh so slow…

In winter, stripped bare, unattractive
as if the alien climate
is kind only to natives.

All living things eventually die
there’ll be other reasons to laugh
other reasons to cry.

seasons will come and seasons will go,
there’ll be other trees to nurture
other memories to sow.

When I put together an education kit about Bradshaw Park and discovered just how important trees were to the indigenous Australians I’m ecstatic much of this knowledge is captured in the beautiful tranquil Milarri Garden Trail  at the Melbourne Museum. It’s sad how easily generations of knowledge and expertise can be lost.

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Living Fossils (a villanelle)
Mairi Neil

Celebrate parks and open spaces
How they let us breathe and play
They put smiles upon our faces

Nature provides wondrous places
Adding beauty to the everyday
Wildlife parks, wilderness spaces

Trainers recommend 10,000 paces
Exercise and be healthy they say
They put smiles upon our faces

In childhood egg and spoon races
Kite-flying, hide-n-seek, even crocquet
Celebrated parks and open spaces

Living demands no ‘airs and graces’
whether skies are blue or grey
We must put smiles upon our faces

In the future they’ll look for traces
Of how we spent our lives each day
They’ll dig up parks and other spaces
Perhaps put names to forgotten faces.

Trees, the bush, flowers, gardens – anything to do with nature can inspire me to write and I try and encourage my students to observe, reflect and write too. Inspiration is everywhere – even at Bentleigh Railway Station – this tree fascinates me as I wait for a train after class – an amazing example of how trees flourish against the odds.  It stands proud amidst concrete,  buildings, pollution and neglect, roots bulging through the fence, clinging to concrete wall. And then there is the building in the city with shrubbery sprouting like hair from a rooftop garden and trees straight and proud sentinels at the entrance.

Bentleigh station 2

melbourne city copy

HAIKU by Mairi Neil

Shadows on the hill
Early daffodils shimmer
Caught a winter chill

Beneath skies of blue
Swaying fields of amber grain
Bow heads, pray for rain.

Age does not weary love
Nurturing flowers and shrubs
Investment in health

Tranquil forest scene
Paths hidden and overgrown
Does danger lurk there?

A trip to Tasmania in 2008 to spend two weeks in the wilderness of the Tarkine was a spiritual experience as well as an exercise to prove I was still fit and capable of carrying a backpack and camping, after a bout of ill-health.

I defy anyone to visit this unique area and remain untouched by the timeless beauty, the unbelievable diversity. Experience  awe while in the presence of trees hundreds of years old, or in the case of Huon pines, thousands of years. I felt privileged to be in their presence, but also humbled by my insignificance – any time I spend on earth as transient as a leaf in comparison to these ancient monuments.

I came home rejuvenated and enervated after being close to what must be one of the most beautiful forested areas in the world. An area so many Australians value,  yet for decades has been under threat by miners, loggers and even so-called ‘eco-tourism’.

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Currently, Australians are increasingly aware of the effects of climate change, the need to invest in renewable energy and divest from fossil fuels. I worked hard for Environment Victoria during the last state election and will do so again. Our political masters want us to believe the biggest threat to our world is terrorism, whereas I believe  environmental disasters pose a greater threat.

Writing is one way I can express how I feel, but also encourage others to do the same. We only have one world, let’s look after it – trees are its lungs – acknowledging their value and importance is a good start.

Winds Of Change
Mairi Neil

I am the balmy breeze that becomes the whistling wind
I wonder at the foolishness of architecture
I hear the sighs of lovers and the curses of farmers
I see the cricket matches and the collapsed houses
I want to travel the world and display my power
I am the balmy breeze that becomes the whistling wind

I pretend that I am always in control
I feel the power of Mother Nature’s other children
I touch the clouds and make them weep
I worry that there are places I cannot reach
I howl and keen in the eye of the cyclone
I am the balmy breeze that becomes the whistling wind

I understand the flutter of a baby’s hand
I manipulate heaving white horses
I whisper soft sentences and rant furious prose
I try always for my poetry to be heard
I hope always for a memorable role
I am the balmy breeze that becomes the whistling wind.

We will remember them… and celebrate their life and our links to the past!

They shall grow not old,
As we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them,
Nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun,
And in the morning
We will remember them.

Extract from ‘For the Fallen’, The Winnowing Fan: Poems on the Great War, 1914, Laurence Binyon.

Who was Private George Alexander McInnes?

100,000Australians, our war dead, are buried overseas. Most graves have never been visited by their loved ones, including  that of Private George Alexander McInnes, Grave A.64.

McINNES_GEORGE_ALEXANDER                    chatby war memorial register GA MCINNES

Nineteen years of age, when he died of enteric fever in Alexandria Hospital, Egypt, George is buried in Alexandria (Chatby) Military and War memorial Cemetery, along with 510 Australians from both wars.

Many of the young men, like George,  forever remembered as soldiers, the sum total of their life a caption at the Australian War Memorial, or an inscription on a local cenotaph.

Often family history researchers, relatively new to Australia discover an ‘ANZAC’ and seek no further information if the relative died. However, in recent years there’s been a resurgence of interest in the Anzac legend, and this year with the Centenary of Gallipoli, more people are trying to understand what their relatives must have experienced and the devastating affect the missing lives had on the people left behind.

These young men had a life before the war, and probably a fruitful future if they had lived. When studying for my masters degree I began to explore my connection with the Anzac legend from a family researcher’s point of view, but also from a creative writer’s perspective. If I was going to write about family, I wanted the stories to be readable, believable,  to engage the reader so that the people will be remembered – not as a statistic or an entry in the family tree, but as a person who laughed, cried, loved and hated and contributed to the rich tapestry of the human story.

How do you go about researching a life when all you have are a handful of postcards written from Gallipoli?

How do you recreate a family when you never met, or knew the relatives well?

Can a combination of document research, family oral tradition and personal views recreate a life to write a sufficiently interesting tale that is ‘true’ to their memory?

To reclaim the first nineteen years of the life of George McInnes, it was necessary to begin the search with the fact that he had been killed in the Great War and download his army file from the National Archives of Australia website. They have generously made information on WW1 soldiers available for researchers.

George Alexander McINNES

Regimental number 2657
Place of birth: Williamstown, Victoria
School Number 1499 State School North Williamstown, Victoria
Religion Presbyterian
Occupation Labourer
Address Newport, Victoria
Marital status Single
Age at embarkation 19
Next of kin Father, A McInnes, 67 Oakbank Street, Newport, Victoria
Previous military service Served in the Citizen’s Forces
Enlistment date 31 May 1915
Rank on enlistment Private
Unit name 6th Battalion, 8th Reinforcement
AWM Embarkation Roll number 23/23/2
Embarkation details Unit embarked from Melbourne, Victoria, on board HMAT A68 Anchises on 26 August 1915
Fate: Died of disease 15 December 1915
Place of death or wounding Alexandria Hospital, Eygpt (died of Enteric)
Age at death 19
Age at death from cemetery records 19
Place of burial Chatby War Memorial (Row A, Grave No. 64), Egypt
Panel number, Roll of Honour,  Australian War Memorial 47
Miscellaneous information from cemetery records: Parents: Angus and Hannah MCINNES, “Gairloch”, Croydon, Victoria

Family/military connections LCPL, CG Leslie, 1st ANZAC Cycle Bn, CO, DOW 30 October, 1916

Copyright, AIF Database. May not be printed or reproduced without permission.

Armed with information from these files more data could be gleaned from the Public Record Office of Victoria and other sources, including an inherited box of old sepia and black and white photographs, faded and stained – and of course not labelled or dated!

Setting the scene – Highland Laddies The World O’er

The word Anzac was a new word to me in 1962, when I arrived in Australia from Scotland with my family, at nine years of age. We came to stay with an unmarried cousin of my father’s, Catherine McInnes the first person we met from the Australian branch of the clan. Aunt Kitty, as we were encouraged to call her, was 72 years of age and had never married. She lived a reclusive life after the death of her mother, Hannah the previous year and it must have been a shock when our family of eight exploded on the scene.

Aunt Kitty as I remember her   30s

Her old neglected weatherboard house in Croydon sat on the corner of Lincoln Road and a selection of potholes called James Road. Kitty’s outings, apart from shopping, were to the Croydon Presbyterian Church, Country Women’s Association meetings in the church hall and regular visits to donate blood to the Red Cross in the city. When my parents, a determined Scots/Irish couple arrived with six adventurous children, ranging from three to 13 years of age, her ordered solitary lifestyle changed forever.

Local children had declared Kitty’s rambling dilapidated house haunted, but the  unkempt bush block, encompassing a disused sawmill and overgrown orchard an ideal setting for the release of stored energy after our month’s journey on P & O’s Orion. Like Apaches in the popular Hollywood Westerns, we whooped and cavorted free from the confinement of small cabins, narrow corridors and the crowded decks of the migrant passenger ship.

At Croydon, we climbed trees, staged plum and apple fights, searched through remnants of sheds and chicken coops, discovered deserted bird nests and fox dens, blue-tongued lizards and grumpy possums and discarded rubbish from the turn of the century. We built escape tunnels and stockades to resemble those in Combat, a favourite TV show about a platoon of American soldiers winning the Second World War in Europe. When we wanted a change we escaped Colditz after all as 50s children we still lived in the shadow of WW2.

The old house provided a daily escapade outside, and inside it promised a fascinating adventure of the mind and soul. Gloomy timber-walled rooms, a grim contrast to the wide-open spaces and subdued colours of the garden of Australian bush and imported fruit trees, always coated with a layer of dust common in the dry Australian bush. We arrived a week before Christmas into a heatwave, a baptism of fire as we adjusted to our new home.

Dark cedar furniture deprived of the thrill of polish for a long time, crammed into the 12’ x 16’ lounge-room, lined with brown-stained weatherboards. A huge dining table sitting on blocks because of three broken castors, two lumpy shabby sofas huddled in a corner, horsehair interior leaking onto the dull brown linoleum.

An enormous sideboard, overflowing with ornaments, crockery and other paraphernalia of indeterminate origin, took up most of one wall. This room, out of bounds to us, but we often used it as a shortcut to other parts of the house when playing hide and seek, or tiptoed to peek at forbidden treasures when adults were busy. This was Aladdin’s cave in our eyes and like most curious children we found forbidden places the most exciting.

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My favourite objects, a huge emu egg and two large peacock feathers, their multi-coloured hues catching the limited sunlight and trembling in the breeze we made when running past. Rotten stumps meant you could feel the floorboards bounce and squeak beneath your feet. Sometimes it felt as if the room swayed. We were the cliched ‘herd of elephants’, Mum accused us of being whenever we played indoors.

Aunt Kitty retreated to the lounge room each evening, to listen to programs on a valve wireless, which squatted on the mantelpiece, above a fireplace flickering flames, even in summer.

AWA_Radio

Placed at the centre of the house, the dark and cold room had one window. This overlooked a tumbledown veranda in a dangerous state of disrepair. The tall and narrow sash window jammed shut, its cracked pane held together with discoloured sticky tape. This reminded my parents of the tape to prevent windows breaking from the German bombers that blitzed Scotland, but never reached Melbourne. The atmosphere of neglect that pervaded the property nowhere more evident than this once splendid room.

The ramshackle veranda on rotting stumps sagged against the side of the house, minuscule natural light valiantly trying to penetrate the lounge room. Wild honeysuckle and out of control jasmine provided a haven for mosquitoes that feasted regularly on our Celtic blood. A thicker blanket of greenery blocked out the sunlight as it trailed along the inside of the verandah roof to curl around the window.

A naked drop-pearl light bulb, hung from the ceiling, its flex covered in disintegrating brown cloth. It provided an inadequate 15-watt glow; the bulb a relic from between-the-war years, the same vintage as the cracked patchwork of dull brown linoleum.

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The world of television didn’t exist for Aunt Kitty and being too expensive for our family budget as Mum and Dad tried to establish themselves in a new country, our favourite programs relived in conversations and games. Therefore, when Aunt Kitty invited us into her sanctuary to listen to the radio, or hear her stories of the McInnes Clan in Australia we hurried through bedtime rituals to sit at her feet, faces scrubbed to shine by the glow of red gum logs. We heard tales amply illustrated by artefacts and pictures adorning the walls, or crowding the sideboard.

There were poison-tipped spears from New Guinea and other islands to the north of Australia; hunting boomerangs from Central Australia and nulla-nullas fashioned to kill. Fodder to excite imaginations.

Two huge blown emu eggs sat in patterned porcelain bowls – to us they were dinosaur eggs. Cassowary and peacock feathers protruded from dull brass vases, mother-of-pearl shells gleamed and a single large conch shell still whispered the sound of the Pacific Ocean when held to your ear.

Aunt Kitty fascinated us to silence with tales of brave Captain John McInnes from the Isle of Skye, travelling many times between Europe, the Americas and Australia until going down with his ship, in faraway Portland, Oregon. His clipper Cadzow Forest often mentioned in newspaper articles because of his seamanship. We absorbed the pride in Aunt Kitty’s voice, and demanded more stories. After spending a month travelling the high seas, but in a larger ship we wondered how the men aboard the Cadzow Forest coped with cyclonic winds, sheets of rain, mountainous waves and burning sun?

Relatives we’d never meet stared from behind ornately carved wooden frames, adventurers who had made Australia home or pioneers born here when the country colonised. However, their attempt to establish a dynasty failed with childless Kitty and her older brother, Jack, who married a woman long past childbearing age. Their younger sister, Jessie produced one son, but he would not be continuing the McInnes name. An older brother George, stood resplendent in his army uniform in a picture frame hung prominently above the sideboard and flagged by two poison-tipped spears. His Aussie slouch hat, set at a rakish angle and adorned with the rising sun Anzac Badge worn by diggers familiar from ‘postcards from the trenches’ Aunt Kitty kept.

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‘That photograph was taken prior to his departure for Gallipoli,’ whispered Kitty. Although ignorant of where that was, we recognised the finality and pain in the sentence. We didn’t ask where George lived now. He smiled from another photograph; this time dressed in full Highland regalia: kilt, sporran, beribboned bonnet, sgian-dubh (the highland dirk) – a picture postcard Scot!

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‘Why is he dressed as a Scottish soldier?’ I wondered aloud. ‘Was he in a Highland Regiment and fighting for Scotland?’ My eyebrows knitted in consternation. ‘Where is Gallipoli, Aunt Kitty?’

She smiled, and with the patience of a teacher said, ‘Gallipoli is a long way away in a country called Turkey,’ and then proceeded to talk about Scotland as ‘home’. She said it was important to keep our culture alive. George had borrowed the outfit from his best friend, another George who was a piper in a local Scottish band. Kitty’s voice softened at the mention of the other George and she twisted the shiny Celtic friendship ring on the third finger of her left hand.

‘George Martin was my fiancé. We got engaged before they set off for their great foreign adventure.’ Her mournful face stared at the photographs imprisoned behind carved frames. ‘Neither of them returned home. ‘

We knew to remain silent as we watched emotions flit across her face, her lips quiver.

‘Your Uncle George took ill in the trenches, along with hundreds of others. He was hospitalised in Constantinople and died from enteric fever. He was only nineteen years old.’

The spluttering and wheezing from the fire ceased. My chest ached from holding my breath. I could feel my brothers and sisters tense. Even the flames appeared to freeze. Aunt Kitty stared into the fireplace and spoke as if alone.

‘My fiancé survived Gallipoli, but fell wounded in a great battle in France beside the River Somme. Taken to England he was recovering … until the flu epidemic.’ Tears glistened at the corners of her pale grey eyes, or it may have been a trick of the light. She straightened her shoulders and sighed, ‘he never returned home.’

The sadness in the room, suspended from the cathedral ceiling like a dark cloak, ready to smother happiness and laughter forever. We had learned enough history at school, albeit about the more recent Second World War, to know that soldiers died far from home and the grieving lasted a lifetime.

As sometimes happens in moments of emotional intensity, a circuit breaker occurs. Six-year old, Alistair often did or said the unexpected like most young children. He’d been staring at the photographs, not really following the conversation and his childish voice began singing the popular Scottish song ‘Donald Where’s Your Troosers.’ Quietly at first…  then raucously.

The poignancy of the story passed him by, but his uninhibited singing drew a twitch of a smile from sombre Kitty. This gave the rest of us permission to laugh, but not forget the story of our ANZAC and Aunt Kitty’s Highland laddie, their absence lacing her life with sorrow and planting a seed in me to find out more about the man who shared two of my Father’s names.

Today it is 100 years since George and others left on what they thought would be a great adventure – that’s what war seems to mean to young men of a certain age when patriotism is whipped up by politicians and those in power with vested interests.

In reality, the war to end all wars a myth, but we must remember those who lost their lives, who suffered injury and the dislocated families on all sides of the conflict that had to live with stories of horror and hardship.

There are no real winners in war and as I find out more about the effects of George’s death on Angus and Hannah and his siblings I hope to do justice to their legacy and ensure George Alexander McInnes is not just a name on a war memorial or gravestone.

A good place to start (and to end this post) is to reveal what I know of the day he was born.

Williamstown, County of Bourke, 24th February 1896

George Alexander McInnes’s, birth on the 16th January 1896 is registered by his father, Angus McInnes and his mother, Hannah. Angus is a thirty-eight-year-old labourer from Dunvegan, Isle of Skye, Scotland and his thirty-two-year-old wife Hannah McDonald formerly Leslie, is from Colac Victoria. They were married on 4th June 1890 at Colac and there are two daughters listed: Catherine Ann (4 years) and Jessie (2 years).

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HR Mclean, and a midwife, Mrs Sanderson are present at the birth, rare assistance in the economically depressed 1890s. McLean listed as an accoucheur was probably a male doctor. More than likely, George was born at home, 67 Oakbank Street Newport, because women avoided the humiliation of existing services of understaffed, over-crowded hospitals, where their modesty was rarely considered. The Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital (initially called Victoria Hospital) did not open for business until much later in the year to be ‘one of three hospitals in the world founded, managed and run by women, for women.’

Victoria was changing rapidly as the new century approached and for George it was a good time to be born. Factory Acts introduced in Victoria in 1896 tightened control over the employment and exploitation of children in the industrial workforce, the emphasis being on children as the economic responsibility of parents not as a contributor to the family income.

There was already a uniquely centralised model of school education in Victoria set up in 1872, based on the principles of free, secular and compulsory education. The expanding industry and commerce changed labour patterns and created a demand for improvements in the literacy and numeracy, of the working population.

George would get educational opportunities only imagined by his parents who still spoke Scottish Gaelic as their preferred language. In 1897, the Victorian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was established ‘amid great community concern for child abuse and the plight of children growing up in impoverished and socially inadequate conditions… The value of children was seen to extend beyond the family to society as a whole.

The wages board system, began in Victoria in 1896 whereby wages boards
represented different industries or occupations, comprising equal numbers of
employee and employer representatives, presided over by a neutral chairman who, if necessary, exercised a casting vote. This industrial mediation system designed to prevent the growth of ‘sweat shops’ and rampant exploitation.

Fortunate George would later join his father, an employee of the Victorian Railways in June 1883, a time of great expansion. In a list of permanent railway employees, Angus is recorded as a labourer in the Locomotive branch.

The Newport Workshops started in 1884, and later employed George as a ‘lad labourer,’ but either because of his youth, or his lack of permanency, George is only listed in one annual report – and that is the year of his death, 1915 where he is praised for joining the Australian Expeditionary Forces. He then appears in an obituary column with 55 of the 2,073 railway employees enlisted for active service. Fifty-five young men who ‘ gave their lives for the Empire’.

And again we have returned to the end of George’s life and it promised to be a good one if the war hadn’t intervened.

Victoria spearheaded the movement for an eight-hour working day, and in 1896 incoming ships were met and new arrivals told not to accept any other conditions than that provided by the eight-hour system. Although wages fell to 3s. 6d. for a time, the eight-hour day remained the standard working day for most classes of labour. Railway workers like Angus were fortunate to be on 8/- a day and the McInnes household living in a railway cottage were probably better off than many working class people.

For a long time the character of Williamstown’s industrial development was essentially maritime. The early development directly linked to the development of the port. Williamstown handled most of Melbourne’s shipping before the gold rushes, and boat building and repair yards and associated iron foundries developed.

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However, when the massive Newport Railway workshops were established so too were many new industries. ‘The railway employees together with those in other government employment, gave Williamstown the reputation of being a government town…

The McInnes home in Oakbank Street is two streets away from The Strand and within walking distance of the Newport Railway Station, convenient and prime real estate. The detached house single storey weatherboard (now part of a heritage precinct) set back from the street boundary by a small garden and low front fence would have been considered comfortable for a young family. The wide streets with bluestone kerbs a safe play area for children although no doubt George and his sisters had many trips by Cobb and Co Coach to visit Hannah’s family in Colac before that mode of transport  was superseded by the motor car.

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On his enlistment papers when he joined the Australian Imperial Force on 31st May 1915, George states he has been a senior cadet for four years and one year with the 70th Infantry Militia Citizen’s Forces, ‘still serving’. In 1911 when universal military training was introduced, George would have joined Senior Cadets.

The Defence Act at that time prescribed training in the Senior Cadets at ages 14 -18 and in the Citizen Forces from 18 – 26, he was 19 years 5 months when he joined the AIF. During 1914 with World War I in progress he probably carried out guard duties at munitions factories, oil installations and railway bridges.

The enlistment papers also state he attended North Williamstown State School number 1499 but it is actually No. 1409. Errors like this common in many of the army documents where they even have his address wrong.

The most useful information from the enlistment certificate is the physical description. A picture of a fit young man emerges: 5’8 1/2 inches tall, weighing 9st 11lbs with blue eyes and brown hair. He has two moles on his left cheek and a small scar on his centre back. Imagination starts to speculate how he got the scar… and I’m overwhelmed with emotion. All the photographs of soldiers in WW1 play in a loop in my head,  I can picture young George’s journey and tears flow…

WAR AND PEACE
Mairi Neil

We had the war to end all wars
And yet it happens again.
Confrontation and conflagration
Serves power hungry men.
Uncle George
Buried in Egypt
Like many of his generation
Died a 19 year old ANZAC
To earn our veneration.

Those young adventurers
Volunteered for a melee
Naive and ignorant
Of what was to be …

The trenches,
The slaughter,
The mud,
Screams of pain,
Stench of death,
… the blood
They discovered
Brutality’s
Deadly finality.

In war, no winners
Only propaganda spinners.

Humiliation     Retaliation
Radiation         Defoliation
Emaciation      Starvation

Why not mediation and conciliation?

The ghosts of diggers weep
Sacrifice did not keep
Future generations safe from war
Let us demand peace
All military actions cease
Bring all troops home
NOW!

Vale Dear Friend – Have You Solved The Mystery of Death?

The sun exactly at noon is exactly [beginning to] go down.
And a creature when he is born is exactly [beginning to] die.


Hu Shih, Chinese Philosopher,philosopher, essayist and diplomat

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.”

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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.


Sigmund Freud, Thoughts for the Times on War and 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.

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Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

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.”

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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.

Creating Memories

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.

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Death is an absolute mystery. We are all vulnerable to it, it’s what makes life interesting and suspenseful.

Jeanne Moreau

I Remember Mum Saying – You’ll Eat Worse Than That before You Die!

The secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.

Mark Twain

Today was probably not the best day to take delivery of an anthology with the title You’ll eat worse than that before you die, edited by Kari O’Gorman and published by Melaleuca Blue. The media is full of a hepatitis A outbreak caused by frozen berries imported from China – no deaths reported, but the number of people falling ill increases each day.

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However, the current crisis aside, I was thrilled to receive my copy of the anthology in the mail because one of my stories is included. Kari has done a magnificent job collating the pieces, which include poems, anecdotes, photographs, quotes and sayings as well as stories and recipes.

Writers want to be read and opportunities to publish short stories and poems difficult to find unless you have a body of work to be made into a book – for the traditional publishers or self publishing. Entering competitions or submitting work to projects with specific themes can be a great avenue and I thank Kari and Melaleuca Blue Publishing for the opportunity to be read and to be included in a delightful and entertaining book.

Broth and Trouble!
Mairi Neil

Beautiful Soup, so rich and green, waiting in a hot tureen! Who for such dainties would not stoop? Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!

So sang the Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland and I often echo this praise of soup when remembering a childhood where it provided healthy and hearty meals— especially if accompanied by freshly baked bread.

Many a night I‘ve carried on the childhood tradition of substituting Scotch Broth or thick vegetable soup as the main course when the day’s dramas left little time for preparing a more elaborate meal, or the energy and inclination for cooking couldn’t be found.

When recovering from chemotherapy in 2011, I chose a July trek of the Larapinta Trail in the Central Australian desert as a challenge and to tick off an item from my ‘Bucket List’. The five nights camping provided opportunities for soup to shine as a nutritious meal; easy and quick to prepare over the campfire for the small family on the trail.

Most days a large pot sat on glowing logs, witches black against grey ash as orange flames danced like dervishes in the gusts of wind common in Arrentre country. The enticing aroma of vegetable soup wafted in the winter air. Soup spiced by additional herbs from the ancient garden surrounding us, where tasty plants have flourished for thousands of years. The healing properties of these plants revealed each day by our Arrentre hosts: Nicholas, Malcolm and Genise.

The pot and its often mysterious contents stirred memories of 1962…

The first few months adjusting to life in Australia proved a testing time, especially for Mum, the centre of our close-knit Scottish family. After leaving London by ship in fogbound November, we arrived in Croydon, nine days before Christmas, to a blistering summer. Croydon, on the outskirts of Melbourne, nestled at the foot of the blue Dandenong Ranges, which were still boasting scars from bushfires in January. The area faced more danger before the summer wilted, necessitating anxious Mum and Dad to organise a bucket brigade. We lugged pails of precious tank water to dowse burning embers carried in the hot north wind when the hills burst into flames. Aware of the vulnerability of the rented ramshackle house of dry cracked timber, Mum soaked the weatherboards and surrounding bush to prevent fire from taking hold.

The ‘old house’ as it is now referred to with affection at family get-togethers, had a wartime Raeburn stove fuelled by red gum logs chopped and stacked weekly by my father and two older brothers. Mum cursed the Raeburn because in the swelter of that first summer she literally baked herself. The heat of the kitchen of wood-lined walls under a corrugated tin roof not relieved by air conditioning, or even a fan. Immersed in the habits of Scotland, our taste buds and customs attuned to cooked meals, not salad and cold meat, meant life was not easy for Mum. Regretfully, we never gave her discomfort a second thought. Six children aged from 3-13 raced each other to the table to devour whatever was on the menu.

One afternoon, Mum cooked a pot of vegetable and barley soup. The tureen sat on the side of the old stove until she slid it across to warm for dinner. The eight of us gathered around the large cedar table protected by a green and white chequered oilcloth. The meal was early because Mum wanted to visit an elderly aunt in hospital. The soup swiftly ladled into blue and white Willow-patterned china bowls with the order to ‘hod yer wheesht (be quiet) and eat.’

Brother Iain, the fussiest eater in the family inspected and prodded with his spoon. ‘What are those black bits in the soup, Mum?’

‘Barley,’ Mum replied as she sliced a loaf of bread.

Iain examined the soup on his spoon in more detail, ‘But the black bits have legs.’

Interest sparked, we all searched our soup for black bits. Brother George, declared, ‘Mine have legs too,’ with closer inspection he announced with triumph, ‘They look like ants!’

We moaned as if poisoned, pushing the plates away, gulping water, dramatising as only six siblings can when trying to outdo the other’s reaction. It took a thunderous roar from Dad to restore order.

An army of ants had drowned or been boiled alive in the soup, a sprinkling of their cadavers in all the bowls. Dad suggested they had found their way into the soup via loose mortar in the chimney bricks, ‘This house was built during the First World War and has been neglected ever since.’

However, Mum always had an answer for everything. ‘A few dead ants won’t hurt you,’ she said, checking the time so as not to be late. Her final word, ‘The Aborigines eat them so stop your nonsense and finish your dinner.’

‘But Aborigines only eat Honey Ants,’ said Iain, who also happened to be the family encyclopaedia.

A withering look from stressed Mum chastised us to silence. We rolled eyes and exchanged funny looks behind her back as she debated with Dad whether to strain the soup and salvage the meal, or throw it out and open a tin of tomato soup kept in the cupboards for emergencies. Money always being tight in our working-class home, the thought of wasting food was unthinkable. Those still with a desperate appetite supped the strained soup, the others filled up on toast and jam. Not surprisingly, Scotch broth was renamed Ant Soup in the family lexicon forever onwards.

The camp cooks, Karl and Kathleen, interrupted my musings and I was back in 2011. Soon we would queue for a meal of spicy vegetable soup, camel sausages, and sizzling kangaroo steak, mushrooms and salad. I pondered the difference in menu to those early days at Croydon and what I would be eating with my daughters if home in Mordialloc.

One of the camp hosts, Nicholas, grinned and whispered his appreciative ‘good tucker’ looking forward to piling his plate high. Earlier that afternoon he had managed to dig up a witchetty grub, a delicacy he was prepared to share with me, advising ‘it tastes like cooked egg yolk.’ But I had watched the effort it had taken to unearth the white grub. Small and wriggling in the palm of his hand; it was hardly ‘a meal.’ His brown eyes begged me to refuse his offer and I obliged. A sacrifice I was happy to make; insects and grubs still a taste I have yet to acquire.

‘Fetch your mugs, it won’t be long till we serve.’ The pot of soup was eased off the fire and I watched ants scurrying over leaf litter around the campfire not far from the pot.

Flexible Writing Forms, Write a Villanelle and Have More Poetry Fun

‘Whatever is flexible and flowing will tend to grow, whatever is rigid and blocked will wither and die.’

Lao Tzu, from the Tao Te Ching.

Farewell to 2014 and welcome to 2015. Like many people, particularly in my age group, I wonder where the year has gone and if it’s true that it disappears more quickly the older you are!

If I still lived in Scotland I’d celebrate Hogmanay in the traditional manner and in years gone by I’ve kept up several of the cultural traditions, but confess to having a quiet evening at home on New Year’s Eve, allowing my partying dark-haired daughter to bring in the lump of coal I left at the front door.

Actually, it is a briquette (a lump of compressed coal) from the family home at Croydon. Mum gave it to me to use specifically for the ‘first foot’ over the door on Hogmanay, when I moved into my own home in Mordialloc over 30 years ago.

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This time of year lends itself to reflection as well as remembering cultural quirks. Reflection is an important part of growth and change, especially for someone like me who teaches as well as writes.

  • What lessons worked, what ones didn’t inspire?
  • What writing resonated with others, when did the words fail?
  • What new methods can I try to inspire other writers?
  • What new techniques and tools will I introduce in this amazing digital age?
  • How will I grow and change as a writer forever seeking to improve and connect?

It’s no secret to those that know me that I’m passionate about writing and reading – because of course, they go hand in hand. I love sharing knowledge and encouraging others to be equally as passionate about the craft of writing and to expand their reading lists and writing repertoire. As I encourage others to move out of their writing comfort zone, so must I.

On New Year’s Eve I read a book that had me laughing aloud (good for the health) and admiring the pithy, witty, insightful and succinct use of the English language as well as the skilful political observations of many fellow Australians. Pardon me for mentioning… Unpublished Letters to The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald is a collection of letters commenting on the Aussie political scene late 2011- early 2013 that never made it to print (until now). It is unashamedly topical, but even if you missed some of the events (not sure how) the cleverness of the writers will impress you and the laid-back trademark Aussie humour abounds. After reading this book you’ll look at some of the names and wish they were regular published commentators of life here in Oz! (Although with our current PM, I’m guessing the 2014 edition will be unprintable!)

One letter writer quoted on the back cover:

If I get good service in a restaurant I usually tip 10 per cent of the bill. If the service is poor, the tip I leave to the waiter is: ‘Don’t overwater your bromeliads in winter.’        John Byrne, Randwick

My tip is don’t hold a cup of hot tea or coffee in your hand while reading this book especially in the chapter: Crimes Against the English Language. Yes, as well as being amusing, the book can be used as a learning tool – what better way to learn editing skills and original clever angles than to try and encapsulate what you want to say in the strict word limit of “Letters to the Editor”.

I’ve had several letters published in the past, but like many others, read my newspapers online now and I haven’t sent a letter for some time. However, this book has reignited interest and presented another writing challenge for 2015. When reading their statistics, they receive more than 2000 letters by email a week, plus faxes and handwritten missives, therefore to be published your letter needs to have that something extra – and isn’t that what we’d like for all our writing? I’m sure I can organise a lesson for my students to perfect letter writing and thinking positively, some will be published!

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Last year I introduced different poetic forms to my classes. I mentioned the pantoum in a previous post. After showing some examples, I challenged the class to choose a form and write a poem to suit. The results were magnificent, poignant, touching, funny – the whole gamut of emotions encapsulating life experiences.

Dreams Afloat – a pantoum

Ships on the horizon with cargo varied
Stirring memories of long ago
Migrants dreaming of homes adopted
And of lives they must let go.

Stirring memories of long ago
Ships called into ports enchanted
The passengers must let  history go
Seek new friends and spirits kindred

Ships called into ports enchanted
Exotic foods like mango and sago
Tempted passengers and spirits kindred
Amazing changes they’d undergo

Exotic foods like mango and sago
Migrants introduction to homes adopted
Aware of new seeds they must sow
From ships arriving with cargo varied.

Mairi Neil 2014

According to American poet, Conrad Geller, ‘One traditional form of poetry that can be fun to write, is technically easy compared to the most challenging forms, and often surprises the poet with its twists and discoveries…’ He refers to the villanelle and suggests the name derives from the Italian villa, or country house.

The Poetry Foundation say that it is, ‘A French verse form consisting of five three-line stanzas and a final quatrain, with the first and third lines of the first stanza repeating alternately in the following stanzas. These two refrain lines form the final couplet in the quatrain.’

Whatever its origins, a well-known example of a villanelle is Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas. This powerful poem can be read and heard here.

My offering much simpler, but even so, I suggest a good rhyming dictionary will come in handy and should be added to your toolbox along with a normal dictionary and thesaurus. There is a free Rhyming Dictionary online here worth bookmarking if you don’t want to go to the expense of purchasing hard copy.

As Time Goes By – a villanelle

Age brings reflection on each passing year
Sometimes nostalgia like a fever burns,
Loves and lives lost, births many a tear.

Childhood remembered. Time to conquer fear
Learning that paths have many turns
Age brings reflection on each passing year.

Like an uprooted tree, farewell those dear,
The roots left behind for memory churn
Loves and lives abandoned, births many a tear.

Building a new life; opportunities near
Success or failure? You must discern
Change brings reflection on each passing year.

Time marches on, the well-worn maxim clear,
No immunity from grief, mistakes to unlearn
Loves and lives lost, births many a tear.

And when the end of the road draws near
Count blessings. Hope your life did no harm
Age brings reflection on each passing year,
Loves and lives lost, spills many a tear.

Mairi Neil 2014.

Here’s to a happy, healthy and productive 2015 where the words will continue to flow and grow!

Possums – Playful, Pesky and Prolific, Provide Plenty to Ponder for Poetry and Prose

Beauty doesn’t have to be about anything. What’s a vase about? What’s a sunset or a flower about? What, for that matter, is Mozart’s Twenty-third Piano Concerto about?             Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

Summer in Melbourne means active possums –– love them or hate them, everyone has a possum story –– encounters sad, joyful, poignant, funny or infuriating. Great fodder for writing whether in poetic or prose form, short story or memoir. Unfortunately, the days of prolific numbers of the Australian native in Melbourne, long gone as suburbia encroaches and destroys their habitat and domestic pets make war.

Midnight Visitor

Aurora barks and whines to be outside
Swallowed by the darkness, no need to hide.
I hear her snuffling at the back fence
Low moans and whines –– my muscles tense.
What’s wrong girl? Come inside! I demand
Edging forward, she ignores the command.

A sudden scuffle and my peripheral vision
Spies a tiny possum frozen in foetal position
Atop the fence post out of Aurora’s reach
Terrified, the baby clings like a furry leech.
Aurora growls to let the possum know
This is her territory now and it must go!

Calm down girl, I whisper, he’s doing no harm
Moving closer to the bundle, I turn on the charm,
But the little visitor fearing two enemies’ wrath
Finds new strength to take freedom’s path
Along the palings the tiny possum hastened
Leaving one black dog thoroughly chastened!

Mairi Neil 2014

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Australian possums are a diverse group, ranging from tiny gliding possums to large agile climbing brush tails and cuscuses. They all live in trees, although some take up residence in roofs, adapting well to urbanisation and the destruction of their habitat by scavenging in gardens and rubbish bins. Here’s one having fun in the grounds of Melbourne University, in Carlton, coming out to forage when most of the students have left for the evening.

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Shadows

Plaintive song resounds
in University grounds.
Students hurrying home
ignore skeletal branches
of winter trees, oblivious to
a bird’s lament.

The mournful song
recalls dinosaur dynasties
amid a whirr of bicycle wheels,
footsteps, ring tones,
mobile conversations
and Ipod seclusion.

The full-throated celebration
announces dusk,
a melodious call to rest
lights douse, shadows deepen,
doors lock…
and the campus empties.

Crowded trams trundle past
bathed in artificial sunlight
beneath a star embroidered sky.
Tall grey buildings cover the bones
of long forgotten species
The call of birded tongue
a melancholy echo.

Mairi Neil, 2008

In Melbourne an enterprising business operates: Pete the Possum Man. But be warned, as a protected species, Pete may remove them from your roof, but if he lets them out a few yards away, they’ll be straight back inside!

In Canberra, an old friend from university days has a constant battle with possums who have a penchant for her roses. When I last visited, before we could go out for the day, we had to search through the undergrowth for her shoes, the weapon of choice she uses at night if she spies the little critters munching on the flowers. (Aurora barking saves my roses, but the possums keep my camellia on high alert!)

In April 1996, new laws to encourage responsible pet ownership and protect native wildlife, came into effect across Victoria, concerning the keeping, control and conduct of domestic cats and dogs. Cats had to be registered as well as dogs. Kingston Council, along with others, added laws to foster harmony between the cat and dog owning public and the rest of the community as well as to protect the environment and wildlife.

That Cat Next Door

That cat next door is such a pest.
She walks, she stalks with zeal and zest.
She crawls and creeps
Even pretends to sleep ––
until…
With a great big pounce
Over the shrubs like a ball she’ll bounce
And with her mouth open as if to yawn
She’ll snap at the birds feasting on the lawn!

That cat next door is such a pest
She walks, she stalks with zeal and zest ––
but …
No matter how expertly she hunts her prey
They always manage to fly up and away.

That cat next door is such a pest
She walks, she stalks, with zeal and zest ––
but …
Shining silver bells around her neck sway
They tinkle and jingle a warning each day

Look out! Look out!
Little birds fly away
Come back! Come back!
When that cat’s gone away.

Mairi Neil, 1998

Despite some encounters being less than positive, I love possums visiting my garden and believe firmly in the motto ‘live, and let live’ after all they were here first.

We arrived in Australia in the summer of 1962, on December 16, a week before Christmas. Dad’s cousin Kitty lived alone in the Croydon family home and welcomed us into the rambling old weatherboard set in several acres of land, remnants of a timber mill and orchard.

The ramshackle house, rusty machinery and trees gone to seed, a readymade adventure wonderland for 6 children used to the concrete pavements of Greenock, a shipbuilding town, on the River Clyde, 25 miles from Glasgow.

That first summer we discovered the difference between blue tongue lizards and snakes (not much in the fright factor!); how to silence noisy cicadas by stomping near the roots of trees; that kookaburras always laugh when you do something stupid, and they love raw kangaroo meat, swooping low in the evenings to steal from the plates of pet dogs and cats.

We also discovered eating fresh plums can give you hives, and the jam Mum made not quite as delicious as the bramble jelly she made in Scotland, but still yummy. We couldn’t pick the blackberries in Croydon because they were considered a weed and the bushes sprayed regularly with poison.

The days of roaming free from dawn to dusk were heavenly, especially after being aboard a migrant ship for over a month. However, the nights battling mosquitoes (mossies) sheer hell! The tree canopy ideal camouflage for those vicious blood suckers. We looked like the Apaches from Hollywood movies, daubed with Calamine Lotion instead of warpaint as mum tried to stop us scratching and tearing at our skin. The pungent blue smoke of mosquito coils still clings to the inside of my nostrils, as does the vinegar compresses used to counteract the itch and sting of burning skin after too many hours in the sun.

The Australian bush holds delights and dreads. We watched out for the ubiquitous redback spider on the toilet seat, the bull ant bite to toes frisky and free in flapping thongs, and discovered first hand what ‘play possum’ meant, and that acidic possum pee is deadly and stinks!

Our summer freedom changed for the daily routine and discipline of school in February ’63. I started at Croydon Primary School along with brothers George and Alistair; older brother Iain and sister Catriona enrolled at Croydon High School. At the high school, uniform was compulsory (and expensive), but Iain looked smart in brand spanking new white shirt, striped school tie, grey trousers and grey v-necked school jumper with a riband in the school colours of rust and blue. The family budget wouldn’t stretch to blazers, but the jumper was an acceptable everyday substitute.

A couple of weeks into the term we set off for school, but only got as far as the clothesline where we found a tiny possum practising a tightrope act. It may have been its first sojourn alone, or perhaps it had become separated from its family –– whatever the reason, it now had an audience of five wide-eyed school children eager to give it a cuddle.

Brother Iain, the family animal expert took charge, having owned a hamster and a rabbit in Scotland as well as claiming the family Collie as his dog. The possum froze and ‘played dead’. A quick conference and in our ignorance, we decided the possum would make a wonderful family pet. We’d put it in the old disused chook house for safe keeping until we returned from school.

Iain prised the possum from the clothesline and murmuring soothing words cuddled it to his chest. It rewarded him by peeing on his new school jumper and as the shock made him relax his hold, the baby possum leapt back onto the clothesline to reveal how well the tightrope practice worked by scampering along and leaping into a nearby tree. (Ringtail and Brushtail possums have tapering prehensile tails with coiled tips, which they use as a fifth limb. Their digits are arranged so they have a pincer-like grip and long-pointed claws are not to be challenged!)

A day burnt into our memories as the possum pee scalded Iain’s new school jumper, which had to be thrown out because the smell remained despite repeated washing. Like Queen Victoria, Mum was not amused, but we learnt an important lesson about not interfering with wildlife unless absolutely necessary for their welfare, such as a recent intervention by my daughter’s boyfriend when he came to the rescue of a frightened possum trapped in the ladies toilet at the community house where I work.

There had been an electrician working in the roof during the day and a hatch had been left open. A possum found its way into the roof, wandered around and didn’t notice the open hatch. He fell through the cavity and how he managed to avoid going straight down the open toilet bowl is a mystery because the short distance left little room, or time, for recovery of balance. A middle-aged matron went to use the toilet and screamed. Although by the amount of possum poo I swept up later I’m not sure who was the most traumatised!

Glen to the rescue – we had no idea how the possum would react after being trapped for hours and the frightened matron said, ‘it was huge’. A plumber who works for a local council, Glen assured us he often had to remove possums from strange places. Wearing leather gardening gloves and armed with a towel, our knight in shining armour opened the door – and closed it at once. He leant against the wall and took a deep breath, ‘that bugger’s huge!’

It was a hefty adult male possum and its terror had turned to fury by the sounds coming from behind the toilet door. We closed all doors into other rooms and opened the front door wide. Glen would have a clear run along the corridor once he caught the possum. And run was certainly the operative word.

The rescue over in a few minutes; no time to film the hilarious scene as Glen grabbed the possum, struggled backwards from the toilet, rushed towards the door with a frantic grunting possum clawing to be free. Within seconds it leapt free from the towel (or was let go?) to speed outside in a flash of grey fur and growls.

Of course, not all possums survive and when I walked my daughters to school we occasionally came across a dead possum. Distressed, yet curious, they’d have a strange fascination for the horror the transformation of death brings, as children often do.

Poor Little Possum

Poor little possum what happened to you?
If you were human, you’d be cold and blue.
I know you are dead, so still on the ground
The only sign of life, ants scurrying around.

Poor little possum, did you fall from a tree?
Attacked by a cat, you didn’t expect to see?
And then too late – caught unaware
To now loll lifeless with eerie empty stare.

Those glassy eyes, a fixed vacant glare
While hair from your tail fluffs in the air
Your partly-open mouth shaped in a grin
Tips of sharp teeth protruding from within

Did you die of fright? A dog’s sudden movement
Creating a hullabaloo you fell to the pavement?
Did modern disease snatch life’s breath away?
Toxic sprays, car exhaust fumes, air thick grey.

Curled paws reveal claws, perhaps your just asleep –
Tip-toeing nervously closer we dare to peep –
To examine your stiff body, look for a wound
Hope no horrendous injury will make us swoon.

Perhaps you did succumb to ghastly pollution
Although much more likely to be electrocution
Destroyed habitats mean possums struggle to survive
Poor little possum, I wish I could magic you alive.

Mairi Neil 1994

However, my daughters still giggle about an incident at Mordialloc College when they were teenagers. There was a ‘smokers’ tree’ at the edge of the school grounds where smokers gathered beneath a huge gum, to escape detection. One day, lounging and smoking, they chatted and laughed while feeding pieces of fruit to a possum. A teacher was spotted making his way across the oval, everyone jumped to stub out their cigarettes. Terrified by the sudden movement, the possum reacted by running up the trouser leg of a nearby boy – all the way to his groin! The smokers club ‘freaked out’ and forgot the threat of approaching authority!

I’ll save other stories for another day, but encourage writers to share theirs. This passing parade of possum poems, pictures and paragraphs sparked by my travelling daughter who has recently returned home. She looks out for possums on the overhead electric wires on our nightly walks and it is lovely to see her childlike excitement. These walks, our way of meditating to appreciate the beauty of our environment and our many blessings.

Moonlight Walks

Sea breeze absent
Some trees stark statues
beside the fluttering
foliage finery of those
sprouting new life,
shelter for nesting birds
and energetic possums.

Eyes drawn heavenwards
to a rosy sky spreading
bright benevolence below,
to soften the menace of dusk;
harsh reality of empty streets.

Darkness holds no fear
under a glowing orb
and sequinned sky
Their brilliance
a balm for melancholy —
whether brief painful thoughts
or permanent struggle
with life’s tribulations.

Time to ponder the vastness
and possibilities
of an unending universe —
the majesty of a sky
carpeted with twinkling stars.

Recall a tender kiss
soft as a breeze.
Hear the whispers
from the village that is a tree.
Feel Life pulsating in the breath
and beauty of nature’s rhythm
as shadows dance into light.

© 2014