Politicians and Poetry – Both Nonsensical Today

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The above quote by Sir Winston Churchill played out today as Australia’s Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull was finally removed by the internal bickering of his own political party!

This is the second time he has lost the leadership and of course, he has done the same to opponents, notably former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, which I wrote about in a previous post in 2015.

I wrote about being glued to the television news coverage and being a political junkie – well the last few days have been deja vu!

Malcolm Turnbull smarter than Tony Abbott, or just a better tactician, pre-empted an assassination attempt, but after a torturous few days for the public,  finally lost and Scott Morrison is now the 30th prime minister of Australia.

Poetry A Good Outlet To Express Feelings

There’s an old saying – if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry… I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling frustrated, bewildered, and angry at the behaviour of the current Liberal politicians and the latest stunt really is beyond belief considering there are so many important issues the voters are worried about…

However, laughter can be the best medicine – or playing with words and writing silly verses can get rid of the anger.

Humour works well in poems, many poets use irony. Repetition and rhyme are great tools too. Added to rhythm and choosing a great subject you could be on a winner like Dr Seuss!

I certainly enjoyed myself manipulating words and making up limericks and clerihews about the hapless lot currently masquerading as our government. Some are unprintable.

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The Muppet Show @ZanettiCartoons

Canberra’s Shenanigans Fodder for Cartoonists but also Poets

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A Limerick is a rhymed humorous or nonsense poem of five lines which originated in Limerick, Ireland. The Limerick has a set rhyme scheme of :

a-a-b-b-a with a syllable structure of: 9-9-6-6-9.

The rhythm of the poem should go as follows: Lines 1, 2, 5: weak, weak, STRONG, weak, weak, STRONG, weak, weak, STRONG, weak, weak Lines 3, 4: weak, weak, STRONG, weak, weak, STRONG, weak, weak…

Part of the charm of the limerick is the surprise, the sudden swoop and unexpected twist of the last line. Like the nursery rhyme, many limericks attack the authority of the church, lampoon politicians and are great outlets for protest.

Limericks Record a Week of Political Lunacy
Mairi Neil

Liberal MPs are rogue again
flushing their PM down the drain
up to power-grab tricks
these self-absorbed pricks
behave as if they are all insane

Malcolm Turnbull has said his ‘Goodbye’
was it only yesterday he said, ‘Hi’?
LNP politics rough
you have to be so tough
‘Cos their loyalty’s in short supply

‘Jobs & Growth’ a slogan, not reality
like all Libs Mal lacks mendacity
a Top Hat forever
his spins are quite clever
Pity he lacks political morality

Tony Abbott always lurked up the back
unforgiving for getting the sack
revenge best served up cold
Biding time to be bold
Then use Dutton to lead an attack

Dud Dutton mistimed Tony’s planned coup
this decision supporters will rue
many thought they had won
dirty deed all but done
till the numbers reduced to a few!

And like Judas, ScoMo can betray
volunteering to save Turnball’s day
with his hyena-like smile
he has prayed for awhile
and been lying in wait for his prey.

Bishop’s catwalks will now be the past
Poor Julie has deputised her last
intimidating stare
and her fixating glare
all gone when her power lunge crashed

Vic MP Greg Hunt rates a mention
No obvious crude rhyme my intention
suffice let me just say
he’s a rat by the way
and deserves careful close attention.

Small ‘l’ Liberals today were trounced
the results of the ballot announced
Dutton’s supporters lost
stability the cost
methinks dastardly deals made with Faust

Josh Freydenberg, ScoMo’s deputy
that may be a strain on fidelity
is there love in his soul
for the mining of coal –
or NEG disappear, plus integrity?

Whoever you vote for, be warned
Peoples’ choices too often scorned
In Canberra’s bubble
Egos foment trouble
Integrity frequently deformed.

What about all those Labor pollies
Scarred by the memory of follies
Libs continually try
But Bill Shorten won’t die
Perhaps that sent them off their trolleys!

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You Too Can Clerihew

A Clerihew (or clerihew) is a very specific kind of short humorous verse, typically with the following properties:

  • It is biographical and usually whimsical, showing the subject from an unusual point of view;
  • but it is hardly ever satirical, abusive or obscene;
  • It has four lines of irregular length (for comic effect);
  • The first line consists solely (or almost solely) of a well-known person’s name.

PM Malcolm Turnbull
must feel a bit of a fool
thought he had power
but his party turned sour

Scott Morrison won
leadership squabbles no fun
reflecting on the past
he must wonder will it last?

Ex-cop Peter Dutton
Should order some mutton
like potatoes, he’s mashed
prime ministerial hopes smashed.

Labor’s Bill Shorten
votes must be sortin’
perhaps three-word slogans seeking
‘ScoMo must go’ worth tweaking

Clerihews are funny poems you write about specific people and you don’t have to worry about counting syllables or words, and you don’t even have to worry about the rhythm of the poem.

You don’t have to limit yourself to writing clerihews about people you know. You can write clerihews about people you have never met but it works best if you write about someone who is well known, or who at least is known to your readers/audience.

Politicians and celebrities ideal!

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Hollywood Mel Gibson’s home
Where many Aussies like to roam
Mad Max and Braveheart a winning streak
Pity his true character’s so bleak

But you don’t have to limit your clerihews to real people. You can write about characters from books, movies, comics, and cartoons.

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Poems can have many different purposes, e.g. to amuse, to entertain, to reflect, to convey information, to tell a story, to share knowledge or to pass on cultural heritage. Some forms of poetry are associated with certain purposes, e.g. prayers to thank, celebrate, praise; advertising jingles to persuade; limericks to amuse.

Some of the most satisfying lessons I have are when we try different types of poetry in class. Not all the students agree with me or even like poetry but they always make tremendous efforts and write amazing poems!

Splurge Dirge

Mairi Neil

Let’s agree poetry is a way
for words to live in print
Wordsmiths have their say

Sometimes it’s a bit of fun
doggerel, childish ditties,
satire, irony, – even a pun

Practicality can be boring
romance is better in verse
poetry sets emotion soaring

Memories collect and grow
nostalgia breeds a poem
subverting what we know!

Terse verse a picture paints
limericks, clerihews, lunes
ridicules sinners and saints

Messages in greeting cards galore
Quatrains, rhymes, free verse
jingles, psalms, songs and more.

I can’t imagine poetry’s demise
this wonderful chameleon genre
Its devices will always surprise

I have a wonderful student who has been coming to my classes for more than 18 years – she is now 89 years old. I love her poetry, her attitude toward life and treasure the poems she has written about me!

Limericks & Rhyme

Heather Yourn

There once was a tutor called Neil
Who fervently made an appeal
To all in her class
To get off their backsides
And write with some fervour and zeal

It’s hard to write in rhyming verse
When one is used to prose
But when your tutor suggests you try
You had better – I suppose.

There once was a bard from Avon
Whom many have thought a right con
Some said he wrote verse
But others were terse
Claiming he’d never catch on.

Poking Fun At Pollies
Heather Yourn

Poor old Bronwyn bit the dust
After that chopper ride
Even Abbott deserted her
But no-one even cried.

Mr Palmer’s very rich
He always ate big meals
Bit off more than he could chew
With dubious mineral deals.

Malcolm Turnbull goes by tram
Anyone know why?
Even Google is nonplussed
As certainly am I.

Malcolm was Republican
Until the Hard Right to a man
Forced him in another mould.
Now he does as he is told.

That last stanza of Heather’s written in 2016 – insightful!

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Form Poetry Can be Fun

I usually teach poetry by introducing various forms first – templates and structures help people if they have never tried to write poetry or have a fixed idea of what poetry ‘should be’.

Take a TRIOLET

A triolet is an eight line poem or stanza with a set rhyme scheme. Line four and line seven are the same as line one, and line eight is the same as line two. The rhyme scheme is ABaAabAB.

  • line 1 – A
  • line 2 – B
  • 
line 3 – a
  • 
line 4 – A (line 1)
  • line 5 – a
  • 
line 6 – b
  • 
line 7 – A (line 1)
  • 
line 8 – B (line 2)

ad nauseam

Here is my wonderful Heather again… commenting on our class attempting Triolets from visual prompts…

Triolet Torture

Heather Yourn

This here is a Triolet
Stuff the guy who thought them up
A masochistic fool I bet
This here is a Triolet
Just as well we never met
‘cos on his ‘brains’ I’d sup
This here is a Triolet
Stuff the guy who thought them up

Tori’s got the chicken card
I don’t think that’s fair
How can I be champion bard?
Tori’s got the chicken card
I am trying really hard
Pulling each grey hair
Tori’s got the chicken card
I don’t think that’s fair.

Everyone’s still writing
Furrowed brows the deal
Too engaged for chatting
Everyone’s still writing
Are their rhyme fish biting
to please dear Mairi Neil
Everyone’s still writing
Furrowed brows the deal

And because this post is about politics and poetry I’ll end with one of mine and perhaps a message to ‘that mob in Canberra’ who are so entitled and ego-driven they have forgotten why they are there!

Distraught Democracy
A Triolet
Mairi Neil

Democracy requires some thought
The right to vote so dearly won.
Truth and Integrity can’t be bought
Democracy requires some thought
Election promises with lies fraught
Politicians desperately seek the sun
Democracy requires some thought
The right to vote so dearly won!

No doubt there will be an election sooner rather than later and we can get the chance to vote and teach them a lesson!

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Rekindling The Desire To Write

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The other day, I received an email from a young man who wanted to write – not a book or novel but ‘perhaps for the screen‘. He believed his future was to write stories and present them in a way people understand just ‘not in paper format‘…

Unfortunately, Mordialloc Writers’ Group is no more but his desire to tell stories and write made him seek guidance from other writers.

His request rekindled memories of why I founded the local writers’ group in 1995 and maybe he and several others who have contacted me will be motivated to establish their own support group.

I remember that ache to be with people who understand the desire to write.

I remember wanting to not feel isolated or alone; needing to be with others who understand the fascination with words.

Sometimes I wonder where that eager, passionate writer has gone.

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It’s Easy to Become Jaded

Over the years, through my involvement with the group and my teaching, I’ve managed to keep writing, but not always, writing what I want – and sometimes not from the heart. There have been periods of avoidance or dissatisfaction with whatever I’ve written. Periods of feeling overwhelmed by the expectations of others.

At times it took a conscious effort to remember and appreciate the sheer joy of stringing words together into a meaningful sentence, a memorable metaphor, a funny rhyme, an interesting character or setting…

When there are workshops to organise, deadlines to meet, lessons to plan, and editing of other people’s writing, the passion and pleasure, spark of imagination and fun are often smothered, spontaneity lost.

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  • I’ve never had ‘making money’ as the main aim or motivation for writing – just as well because few writers ever become wealthy like JK Rowling.
  • My ego has never been so demanding that celebrity status or becoming famous kept me motivated to write.
  • And unlike George Orwell, I have never been so driven that I could neglect family responsibilities or my friends.

However, I do want to be able to respond proudly and without hesitation,  to the questions, ‘What are you?‘ or ‘What do you do?’

I want to respond with, ‘I am a writer.’

I believe I am, and I do – even if not as successful as many others in the field.

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  • I still want to record my own stories and help others record theirs.  Let their voices be heard regardless of whether they have a university degree or dropped out of high school.
  • I want to meet anyone who enjoys playing around with and understanding the power of words, whether it be writing ditties, letters to ‘the editor’, romantic and creative cards, bookmarks, popular or literary short stories, healing personal stories, or the ‘one novel everyone has inside them’.

Mordialloc Writers Group produced nine anthologies between 1997-2016 and gave 66 writers a voice and an opportunity to be a published author. Many have gone on to write novels, poetry collections and memoir.

I have a shelf of class anthologies from paid teaching positions at several places, including the Sandybeach Centre 2002.

Writers gather to workshop
Read their prose, poems, and plays
In the Studio
Tuesday morning
Each week at Sandybeach

Mairi Neil 2002

blue moon rose

The anthologies from classes at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House, Godfrey Street Community House and Longbeach Place, remind me to appreciate the privilege of meeting so many different women and men of varying ages and abilities, all with a desire to write.

I have pages of imaginative, poignant, amusing and serious poems and prose from so many different writers.

What a privilege to share their stories, poems, plays, songs – even an opera – as they delighted in being with like-minded people with a passion for words.

Writing groups and classes bring together people from all walks of life writing what they want to write, but also valuing the techniques and tools of the craft.

Some write as part of a healing process, recovering from accident, illness or grief. Exercising their imagination not just therapy but a glorious release of ideas perhaps not revealed before.

Some write with the aim of helping others recover or learn from their journey, or impart knowledge and ideas they care about.

Some write because at long last they have the time or the courage to nurture their desire to write that novel, or book of poems, or rhymes for children, memoir, autobiography, family history or screenplay for Television, Holywood, or the Web!

Digital technology opening up choices not dreamt about when I first started writing creatively.

The young man who wants to tell stories by writing but not on paper an example of the digital revolution and the future. Maybe he’ll find an online group…

What Am I?
Mairi Neil 2004

I’m a writer.
A phrase with connotations galore –
author, biographer, journalist, poet,
columnist, editor, dramatist, copyist,
novelist, playwright, reporter,
essayist, wordsmith, hack ––
Need I name more?

Writers write!
Unless up against the dreaded block.
They author, communicate, compose, pen,
scratch, sign, autograph, indite,
correspond, create, draft, inscribe,
note, pencil, record, scrawl ––
Scribble frantically around the clock!

The literati boast lucubration at escritoire,
manuscripts cause graphospasm,
and corpus oeuvre fill posterity’s chasm,
from palaeography to grammatology,
stenography preparing bibliography ––
Pseudonyms detected by graphology!

Whether freelance or fabulist using
nom de plumes, ghostwriters or epistolary,
thank goodness people of letters
still continue orthography.

Scriveners scribble in scriptoriums
producing poetry and prose to fascinate,
enlighten, entertain and have their say!
Words that uplift, educate –– or challenge,
even offend –– to promote a cause célèbre!

5 Ways to Rediscover or Retain Writing Mojo & Spirit…

Number 1:

Write something for fun or like me vent your frustration. Form poetry is a good place to start – maybe a limerick or two.

Current Affairs But Who Cares?

Mairi Neil

Barnaby’s no longer Deputy PM
No longer the National’s gem
But tone-deaf Tony
And Bernardi the phoney
Both agree he’s not one of them!

Meanwhile, Malcolm’s losing the polls
Trying to dodge social media trolls
Tony keeps sniping
Ol’ Barnaby’s griping
Mal’s struggling to hold the controls.

Yet, who wants Bill as the boss?
Both the left and the right are cross
Bill tried to be canny
Lying about Adani
Now Labor may face electoral loss.

Aussie politics seems such a joke
Weekly stuff ups by bloke after bloke
Time for the choice
Of a strong female voice
The glass ceiling again must be broke.

Number 2.

Keep a journal or maybe a blog – experiment with poetry, flash fiction, citizen journalism…

Searching for Words and Meaning…
Mairi Neil

In writing class
we explore language
seek living words
lively words
alive words
volume high
sentencing each other
to work it out
or perhaps not
just listen, absorb and be
explore the language
search for words
taught in childhood
read in books
overheard on the train…
volume doesn’t matter
one sentence or two
from me or you
language exploration
job description
happiness prescription
research for a living
search for meaning
out-search a life
my sentence
to teach
writing in class…

Number 3.

Make the time to read a book or see a film, visit an art gallery or a museum – it may inspire you to write a review.

Haiku Book Review by Mairi Neil

Crime and Punishment
Dostoevsky challenges
ethical nightmare

Number 4.

Be creative – sew, knit, garden, paint, take photographs – find pleasure and satisfaction in other projects and free your mind to return to writing.

Number 5.

Dance, listen to music, walk, meditate, enjoy the silence of nature.  Nurture your inner self, the words will come when you are ready and your creative energy returns.

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Good luck – and wish me luck too!

 

Winter Inspiration – Inside or Out

 

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Mordialloc Beach in Winter

 

Mordi Beach In Winter
Mairi Neil

A winter’s day, yet the beach is warm
sheltered from the blustery streets
the blue water of the sea is still
peaceful and calm
a mirror for Nature’s beauty.

Clouds, fluffy and soft kiss the horizon
blurring the pale yellow sun
peaceful and calm
birds glide playfully on the water,
an ice-skating rink for seagulls

the beach is almost deserted
a few hardy individuals searching
for what?
Seeking solitude as they stare out to sea
while looking inward towards soul?

In the distance, fossickers bend
searching for treasures left behind
metal detectors sweep gently
and keen eyes will shifting sands
to make their day.

Three children paddle in the sea
rolled-up trousers wet with rising damp
their pink toes tingling and wriggling
tiny teasing waves cause giggles
and footprints magically disappear.

Moored boats at the pier silent sentinels
Their masts bobbing in neat rows,
a lone tanker looms black on the horizon
lack of wind meaningless
to workhorses.

It is time to leave the sea to reclaim the sand
the children clutch a treasure of pretty shells
wet clothes are exchanged for dry
the trappings of civilisation put on feet
memories and mementoes packed away.

The children are tired from play
peaceful and calm
It has been a wonderful day.

Tomorrow is the first day of The Walking Neighbourhood at Arts Centre, Melbourne and after glorious winter days, rain has been forecast!

Seasonal Sneeze
Mairi Neil

The warm sun belies winter’s chill
Yet the calendar doesn’t lie
The first day of June in Melbourne
Is officially winter – I hear you cry.
But where are the southerly winds
Dewy grass transformed with frost,
The accumulation of bruised clouds,
Upon grey skies embossed?

Temperatures more like autumn
Blue skies reminiscent of summer
Mercurial Melbourne’s reputation
Is that of a seasonal actor.
We soak up this surprising sunlight
The delightfully warm days
Look forward to outdoor events
Dispelling winter’s malaise.

Wait! Our optimism is fleeting
The weekend promises rain
Umbrellas, scarves and coats
Will be needed once again.
Four seasons in one day
This city’s reputation after all,
Looks like we’ll be wet and shivering
While sheltering from a squall!

The seasons provide so many writing prompts and inspiration for poetry – especially form poetry. here is a Triolet.

Winter’s Whisper
Mairi Neil

Winter came a’calling today
With its bitter winds and rain
Chills no thrills; sneezes not gay
Winter came a’calling today.
Autumn debris about us lay
Squelching footsteps a sad refrain
Winter came a’calling today
With its bitter winds and rain.

 

window at NGV
water wall National Gallery of Victoria

 

Winter Blues
Mairi Neil

Tears on the windows
Melt Jack Frost’s artwork
A crackling fire
Steams clothes on the pulley
Hot broth simmers on the stove

A splatter of rain on roof tiles
Interrupts the murmuring television
As the eiderdown of white
Disappears from garden path

Slippers soaked from
Collecting the newspaper
Cradled in a pool of slush
The death throes of winter

Toasted marshmallows and
The warmth of electric blanket
Cannot banish the cold
Like a yacht adrift we wait
For spring’s balmy breeze…

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Mornington Beach

HAIKU
Mairi Neil

Deserted barbeques
Empty swings motionless
Winter by the sea

Pool of blue rippling
Exhaling colourful buds
Life’s serene promise

Mother Nature’s arms
Always soothes and refreshes
Whispering sweet peace

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

Gusty gales blow boats
Forceful waves and jagged reefs
Gnashing angry teeth

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Mordialloc Winter Rhythm

Mairi Neil

In morning winter fog
a row of ghostly gum trees
Signpost the traffic

Seagulls soar skywards
tossed by winter thermals
an aerial ballet

Blackbirds and magpies trill
as morning sun
penetrates tea-tree bush

By late afternoon
at Mordialloc Pier
fishing eskies overflow

Palm trees quiver
with chattering birds
as the sun sets

The full moon’s glow
suffused across a sea
now mirror calm

 

 

A daisy a day
Emblems of Nature’s beauty
Brightens and revives

Winter’s skeleton
Hides the promise of Springtime
And the buzz of life.

Mother Nature’s arms
Always soothes and refreshes
Whispering sweet peace

Wattlebirds feasting on
flowering grevillea
wake me from deep sleep

Huddling together
In aromatic profusion
The colours of love

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Coffee for two, please
Friendship needs refills
Our regular fix

Winter Walk
Mairi Neil

Walk quickly, it’s cold
Walk quickly, be bold

The winter moon bright
On this dark wet night
Naked branches creeping
Towards skies weeping

Walk quickly, it’s cold
Walk quickly, be bold

Chill wind shivers
Gutters now rivers
Night sounds
Shadows abound

Walk quickly, it’s cold
Walk quickly, be bold

Mordialloc Parliament
Mairi Neil

A winter morn in Mordialloc
cloudless sky a washed-out blue
melting frost on grassy blades
glistening bubbles of dripping dew.

A magpie family carol and cavort
breakfasting from territory marked
the wattlebirds have departed
with harsh caws and hurried darts.

From grevillea to bottlebrush
my garden their summer home
feeding on nectar’s syrupy sweetness
until chilly winter makes them roam

This garden planted as a refuge,
a tiny oasis in suburbia’s dream
native flora to encourage fauna
so many creatures––some unseen

Showy parrots squeal and screech
their sunset songs a welcome delight,
but the proud magpies’ debutante dance
a morning joy and favourite sight.

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Thank you Mum – Gratitude For Every Day Not just Mother’s Day!

“I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars.”

Og Mandino

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Today I honour my mother, Annie Courtney McInnes (15.4.1921 – 23.10. 2009). She brought seven children into the world and six of us survived to adulthood. At one stage there were four under five years – mothering must have been relentless and exhausting.

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Thank you, Mum, for helping me when I became a mother – the most definitive life-changing event in my life! For guiding and supporting me and not looking through rose-coloured glasses. For acknowledging parenting is a tough gig, whether you have two children or six. Thank you too, for not lecturing me and telling me how ‘it’ should be done.

mother's day poem

Mum – thank you for being one extraordinary wonderful woman!

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Dear Mum
Mairi Neil

When twilight shadows trees
And evening hush descends
The busyness of the day departs
I still my mind; let silence mend.

Thoughts of living abound
You were a safe harbour for me
I sailed chartered and unchartered waters
You calmed an oft stormy sea.

You launched my dreams
And supported me with love
When I set sail to meet life’s challenges
You were always a guiding dove.

Although I was one of a fleet
Time a commodity in short supply
I never felt unloved or neglected
Your largesse constant as the sky.

You taught me how to cope
When buffeted by gales
Never to abandon ship
Just strengthen ropes and sails.

I carried cargo, travelled far
But always navigated home
You taught me to love and be loved
And the sea of life is there to roam.

I’ve shed barnacles, refurbished decks
Still nurture a manifest to complete
But miss those loving arms and words
Ache to drop anchor at your feet.

Each day before lights out
‘neath twinkling stars and velvet sky
I reflect on a mother’s love
Feel blessed. Legacies do not die.

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Mum’s Wisdom (a pantoum)
Mairi Neil

Least said soonest mended
A mantra for good relationships
Wisdom from Mum I respected
Especially when ill-feeling grips

A mantra for good relationships
Helps the journey that is life
Especially when ill-feeling grips
And friendship turns to strife

We all face hard choices in life
Dignity needed when mending rifts
No one wants unsettling strife
Or the fear allegiances may shift

Maintaining dignity, mending rifts
Valuing all the views rendered
Shattering of relationships swift
So least said soonest mended.

Valuing each view rendered
Mum’s mantra for good relations
Wisdom I always respected
And a lesson for warring nations!

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Shelter from the storm
Mairi Neil



Bruised clouds sweep the sky
a gloomy ominous pall.
I remember your voice
a thunderplump is on its way.

Nearing sixty, I wish to be six again
to feel comforting arms
gather me close.

Cushioned against your chest
my anxious heart working overtime
Pit pat pit pat pit pat

Until attuned to your
gentle breathing, and steady
ba boom ba boom ba boom.

I relax, as your hands
usually burdened with chores
keep me safe
in rhythmic caress.

The House Where I Was Born

Mairi Neil

I sing of a river I’m happy beside
The song that I sing is a song of the Clyde
Of all Scottish rivers it’s dearest to me
It flows from Leadhills all the way to the sea

It borders the orchards of Lanark so fair
Meanders through meadows with sheep grazing there
But from Glasgow to Greenock, in towns on each side
The hammers ding-dong is the song of the Clyde

Oh the River Clyde, the wonderful Clyde
The name of it thrills me and fills me with pride
And I’m satisfied whate’er may betide
The sweetest of songs is the song of the Clyde

from the top of Lyle Hill memorial to Free French
You can just see the River Clyde from the bedroom window of Number Two George Square, Greenock and in 1953, the year I was born, the clamouring of the riveters’ pistols in the shipyards competed with the noisy steam trains leaving nearby Greenock West Station.
1:1 2 george square
Like most of the buildings in the Square, Number 2 dated back to the 1800s. The three storey, plus attic and basement ashlar building stained with the grime of industry from several shipbuilding yards and sugarhouses, rope works, and a network of engineering businesses.
George Square Baptist church
The George Square Baptist Church nestled alongside Number 2. This simple Renaissance building of squared rubble with Ionic pilasters, erected in 1888, one of several churches adorning the Square and the only one that does not have bells.
However, the bell ringers of the four other churches ensure the Sabbath is not a restful day for the residents of George Square and shift workers like my father often cursed when the various churches announced the different starting times of their services with clanging bells. Clappers chimed an invasive cacophony as they bounced off hundredweights of metal.
The close stairs, Catriona and Iain
The close stairs, Catriona and Iain
The entrance to Number 2 called a ‘close’. Six stone steps lead to a narrow passageway that stretches to the back of the building where more steps allow access to the flats on the upper floors. At the far end of the close, stairs go down to the pocket-handkerchief back garden, referred to as the ‘drying green’ or ‘back green’. The shared laundry with a copper stove is here, and the rubbish bins.
The coal cellars for the ground floor flats – Number I and Number 2 – are beside the laundry. My father being a keen amateur photographer converted part of the coal cellar into a dark room-cum-workshop.
1950s coalman
Number 2 is the cream of the flats, having a basement kitchen and its own back door. Upstairs on street level, there are two large rooms: the parlour and a bedroom. The entrance has a patch of dull red floral linoleum, scuffed by many feet and in need of replacing in 1953. The bathroom next to the bedroom has a bath, hand basin, and toilet. The indoor toilet a luxury not shared by many of Greenock’s population, who still live in overcrowded housing stock not yet repaired, or rebuilt after the devastating bombing raids of World War 2.
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The bathroom’s black and white tiled patterned floor a linoleum, but this hardy floor covering has been replaced in the bedroom and parlour by painted wooden floorboards and floral carpet squares.
Although the apartment is large by the standards of the day, it is cramped living for my McInnes family – especially on the night of August 12th when Mum goes into labour with me. The household consists of my parents, Annie (32) and George (31), their children: Catriona (4), Iain (2 and 7months), George (13 months), and Papa ( Dad’s father, John 78) and Dad’s unmarried sister, Mary (40).
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There are two set-in beds, a peculiarly Scottish invention to provide extra sleeping quarters in rooms other than bedrooms. Built into the wall and hidden by dark red crushed velveteen curtains, a set-in bed in the parlour hides above the stairs leading down to the kitchen. Mary sleeps in this bed when she is off duty from the William Quarrier’s Orphan Homes of Scotland where she is Matron of the Epileptic Colony.
The hole in the wall bed, Papa, Catriona and Iain
The hole in the wall bed, Papa, Catriona and Iain
Downstairs in the kitchen is another set-in bed where Papa sleeps. These set-in beds are unhealthy and cold and have been blamed for the spread of contagious diseases like scarlet fever, measles, tuberculosis and other ailments prolific in days gone by, but less of a problem since the discovery of penicillin’s ability to kill infectious bacteria in 1939. In the bedroom, my parents’ double bed hugs a wall opposite a green settee that folds out to a double bed for Catriona and Iain to share. Beside a large cot where George sleeps, a Pedigree coach-built pram sits ready for my arrival.
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Two large wardrobes and a chest of drawers line one wall in the bedroom to accommodate everyone’s clothes. Space at a premium but the parlour always kept tidy to entertain visitors, especially since passersby can easily peek in through the large bay window at street level. The net curtains don’t block out curious eyes and even on cool days the open window lets in fresh air, one of my mother’s obsessions, probably from her days growing up on a farm in Northern Ireland, or perhaps her years as a nurse trained in Florence Nightingale’s methods.
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Most houses of this era have poor ventilation, the narrow claustrophobic close dismal and designed to capture smells. Few rooms have windows to the outside. Cooking smells linger, along with the smoke from the coal fires in every room.
The winters are long and cold in Scotland. Greenock has the highest rainfall of any town in Great Britain and comedians joke those born in Greenock have webbed feet. Most days washing has to be dried inside, or at least ‘aired’ before being folded away.
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The air inside damp as washing hangs from the pulley suspended from the kitchen ceiling or dangles scattered on the backs of chairs, even – tempting fate – draped over the fireguards. Clothes suspended from the ceiling invariably smell of the meals cooked and eaten. Families learn to avoid washing on Fridays if their religion demands eating fish!
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The kitchen is the heart of Number 2. A large black cooking range providing warmth, as well as a pot of permanently hot tea. Mum is Irish and in Scottish colloquialism, a ‘tea Jennie’, someone who drinks tea by the barrel. A gas stovetop sits in the scullery, the small open room near the back door containing a sink, workbench and serviceable walk-in pantry. Meals are prepared in the scullery.
Two comfy armchairs sit either side of the cooking range, close enough for stretched legs and feet to rest on the range and be nicely toasted on a chilly day or night. The square wooden table host at mealtimes with Mum’s limited repertoire because rationing still exists in 1953.
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Food on the menu, some more frequently than others, includes: porridge, vegetable broth, lentil soup, mince and tatties, slice, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, lamb cutlets, Irish stew, champ (mashed potatoes with chopped spring onions), parsnip and carrot mash, turnips, bacon and fried eggs, black pudding and fried bread, rice pudding and tinned mandarins, semolina and prunes, and bread and butter pudding.
Ration book 1953
However, when Dad collects his pay on Friday night, ice-cream can be purchased as a treat, from the Tally van, that prowls the streets playing ‘Greensleeves’. Italian immigrants introduced ice-cream to the British as a street food and created the thriving takeaway culture that still survives in cities such as Greenock.
Brought to Britain as cheap labour and sent north to Scotland with a barrow they sold their ice-cream by crying, ‘Gelati, ecco un poco!’ which probably led to ice-cream vendors being called ‘hokey pokey men’ and the ice cream referred to as ‘hokey pokey’. Regardless of their name or nationality, every vendor was called Tony –short I expect for Antonio, and when you asked for an ice cream cone it was a ‘poke’.
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My family is fortunate because Papa and Dad work an allotment on railway land and grow vegetables, plus raise prize-winning bantam hens that provide eggs to share with childless Steve and Rita Armour, neighbours and valued friends, living at Number 1.
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Dad, a locomotive engine driver stationed at Ladyburn Depot, works shifts two miles away near the James Watt Dock. Most days and nights he walks back and forwards to work because his shifts rarely coincide with public transport timetables. He exchanged hours with a workmate so he can be at home to look after Papa and the children while the midwife and Aunt Mary attend to Mum.
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It is a Wednesday evening, the day unusually warm, reflecting the Indian summer Scotland is experiencing in 1953. However, the evening air chills, fires must be lit and Catriona and Iain have an altercation over the empty coal scuttle. At that moment, fifteen minutes to nine o’clock Mum switches off the vacuum cleaner leans on the mantelpiece and declares ‘it’s time’. The labour pains had niggled all day making Mum restless, hence the vacuuming despite Dad’s pleas for her to rest.
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The spurt of activity has hurried me along, but she barely gets upstairs to the bedroom before I enter the world at 9.05pm, child number four and the second daughter. Arriving without fanfare I almost deliver myself, according to Mum.
Just as well, because Catriona throws the coal scuttle and it clips Iain on the cheek splitting his skin. Dealing with the drama of Iain’s bleeding face nurse Mary misses the birth. She is further delayed to massage Catriona’s hurt feelings after the bad-tempered attack drew a scolding from Papa – a rare event for Catriona, his ‘princess’, and the only granddaughter (until my arrival) in the rapidly increasing McInnes Clan.
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The cry, ‘it’s a girl’ restores joy to the household. Dad and Mum have produced another female offspring, the only couple to do so in their respective families. Mary takes a photograph of me being cuddled by Dad as he sits beside the flickering fire in the parlour. Wrapped in the well-worn christening shawl, a McInnes family heirloom, I’m oblivious to the tap of high heels and leather boots filtering in from the street as couples rush to catch the late movie at the BBC Cinema, two streets away.
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Within the house, Gaelic music wafts up the stairs from the radiogram in the kitchen as Papa celebrates with a wee dram of the finest malt whisky, saved for such an occasion. He sings in his native tongue as Dad’s older brother Alex arrives to check I have the right number of fingers and toes before settling by the fire to smoke one of the cigars he has brought for Dad. He joins his father and brother in ‘a wee dram to wet the baby’s head’.
Exhausted, Mum lies back in bed on pillows bolstered by cushions, aware that any rest period she can claim now will be of necessity very short!
Dad begins to sing The Green Oak Tree to me:

Chorus:

I’ll sing about a wee toon that stands doon by the Clyde,
It’s the toon whaur I was born and it fills my heart with pride
My mother often telt me as she crooned me on her knee,
That Greenock took its name from the Green Oak Tree.
So here’s tae the Green Oak that stood upon the square,
And here’s tae its roots that are still slumbering there,
And here’s tae its townsfolk wherever they may be,
For I’m proud that I’m a branch of the Green Oak Tree.
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May Greenock, like the Green Oak Tree,
still flourish ‘neath the sun.
Her trade and commerce still increase
for a thousand years to come
And may each son o’ Greenock,
as he battles through life’s storm
Be honest, true and ne’er disgrace
the town where I was born.
Now Greenock’s no’ a bonny place,
I’ve heard some folks complain,
That when you go to Greenock
you’ll get nothing there but rain
But let them say whate’er they may,
with them I’ll no agree,
For aye the name o’ Greenock toon
will aye be dear tae me.

Alphabet Wordplay and A Blessing of Unicorns.

An International Exposition of Wordplay

For all the efforts of purists like Johnson to defend it, the language is incomparably flexible. It is like molten glass: you can stretch it, shape it, chop it, misspell, mispronounce or misinflect it, cruelly misplace its elements and somehow you still end with English. It’s a fun tongue.

The British Council is about to send an exhibition, under the title of “Wordplay”, on just that theme for four years around Eastern Europe. It is backed by The Economist–what is the Czech for “blowing your own trumpet”?–and fun it is, full of puns and palin­dromes, dialects, jargon, simplicity and pomp, cliches, metaphors, oddities, inventions (Bernard Shaw’s famous spelling of “fish – ­ghoti, with gh as in cough, 0 as in women and ti as in -tion–is only just beyond the bounds of the possible). No one, maybe, will learn to write a better computer manual from this exhibition; anyone who does not profit from it, be he as English as Johnson, must be a dull stick. Or, if you prefer nowspeak, a lamebrain.

The Economist, 23 Oct 1993

Just as the quote explains, English is a fun and flexible language and as a writer, I love exploring the different ways you can tell a story, or write about an experience.

Alphabet poems have been around a long time and can be a fun form to try. Often associated with children’s writing, or writing for children, it can be a good tool for adults too. Here is another site with examples of poetry, including alphabet poems and below is a poem I wrote many years ago when I started teaching at Sandybeach Centre.  I used it to introduce the class anthology produced at the end of the year.

WHY WRITE?

What motivates people to put pen to paper? In writers’ groups and creative writing classes, people reveal much more than words…

A has aspirations to write a novel
B likes to play with words
C has a loveless life and seeks romance
D thinks Mills and Boon absurd
E loves family history
F reads and journals a lot
G creates settings with descriptive flair
H just loves to plot!
I preaches grammar absorbed from school
J admits to being a hopeless speller
K always suffers from writer’s block
L is an expert storyteller.
M adores purple prose
N employs similes galore
O aches to be published one day
P escapes household chores
Q uses metaphors imaginatively
R nurtures the inner child
S writes for children, but is libertarian
T is erotica gone wild
U is definitely a poet
V writes doggerel and verse
W fears rejection
X is tense and terse
Y dramatises everything producing performance pieces to entertain
and Z – well –
Z writes to understand the world – the musings society’s gain!

Mairi Neil 2002

The poem by Australian Bruce Dawe that inspired me to use the alphabet is a lot grittier because it’s about prison life.

Behind the walls

the walls begin,
behind the bars
are bars
A can make a knife of tin
B can cut out stars
C can get you what you want
a needle, drink or smoke
D can laugh through broken teeth
E can tell a joke
F can fake a heart-attack
G can throw a fit
H can write a letter home
as quick as you can spit
I can con the chaplain
J can con the con
K will know someone to ask
just where your wife has gone
L can keep an eye out
M can pass the word
N can hear the gospel truth
and then forget he heard
O will know which warder
can be got at – and the price
P will offer nothing
but a lot of free advice
Q will want no part of it
R will not be told
S will roll a cigarette
and shudder with the cold
T will hum a lonely tune
U will turn his back
V will lie as still as death
W will crack
X will read his bible
day by holy day
Y with eyes like torches
will burn the bars away

and Z, poor Z, will think the walls
must end where they begin
and that a man, outside, will be
the same as he went in.

Bruce Dawe

Please explore Bruce Dawe’s poetry – he writes about ordinary people facing the everyday. However, his use of poetic techniques makes his poems resonate. They are emotionally engaging and memorable – what more can a poet ask?

Although often used to encourage children to write, I’ve found students in my adult writing classes have a lot of fun with form poetry and having a set structure can encourage the creative juices to flow.  I certainly enjoy the challenge and always write when my students are writing! A lesson I prepared about Acrostic poetry and some of my other poems can be found in Celebrating Poetry: 2014 Poetry Anthology, by Karenzo Media.

I decided to use the alphabet form to describe a wonderful experience I had this year when I went to Sydney with my daughter and experienced my first Oz Comic Con. It was a different way to write about the experience!

The glimpse into a world I had heard my daughters and others talk about, but didn’t really appreciate, an amazing weekend. A world where cosplay lets everyone dress as their fantasy character regardless of gender, race, body build or age. A world of tolerant people who know how to enjoy themselves without hurting others, or themselves, and where there are activities for all the family. I expect for those into popular culture, attendance is deemed compulsory. As a writer/observer there are a hundred stories jumping at you – even as you queue to enter the convention hall.

We flew to Sydney, stayed in a backpacker hostel, and walked to catch the ferry across to Glebe Island where the convention was held. The return ferry trip each day across Sydney harbour a delight, especially at night when the harbour lights twinkled and reflected on the water.

A Blessing of Unicorns

At Glebe Island Sydney on a weekend in September, Comic-Con 2014 was held.

Because my daughter, Mary Jane wanted to attend, I went along for the ride, courtesy of a cheap flight on Tiger Airways.

Celebrities from popular culture such as: films, television, web shows, Anime, Manga, and conventional comic books, attend every year to entertain fans at forums.

Day one, on the Saturday was manic with hundreds of excited attendees queuing to be inside where stalls loaded with merchandise beckoned, plus the possibility of bumping into favourite actors.

Excitement and enthusiasm bubbled; laughter and loud cheerful conversations bouncing off the concrete walls and echoing around the cavernous entrance area.

Friendliness and good humour everywhere despite the wait for the gates to open.

Good vibes from the participants, stallholders, and a host of volunteers with wide smiles and bright green t-shirts created amazing energy reminiscent of childhood anticipation of Christmas or birthdays.

How some of the people squeezed into their costumes a mystery, as was the effort and ingenuity so many displayed to create accurate depictions of their heroes.

I have never seen such an array of characters with so many different interpretations; the cosplay truly remarkable and I could see why Mary Jane found the event attractive.

Just when I thought a character too outrageous or too magnificent to beat, another super hero, or comic book character appeared and my camera worked overtime.

Knights in shining armour, fairytale princesses, royalty galore walking the aisles, their servants, guards and army captains from various historical periods or fantasy worlds, following close behind.

Loki from The Avengers came in different genders as well as all shapes and sizes, as did several other easily identifiable legends.

Marvel Comics have spawned a number of super heroes and villains, their readership spanning generations as well as decades;  their inspiration and influence evident everywhere.

No two costumes looked alike, even if the person inside cosplayed Batman or Wonder Woman.

Over and over again, I witnessed the generosity of those dressed up, as they patiently posed for photographs or shared facts about who they represented, and how their costumes were made.

Photos were available with celebrities too – at a price – William Shatner and Orlando Bloom the most expensive, but generally prices started at $30 upwards to $100.

Queues for tokens to meet the celebrities and for photographs could be lengthy and take up to an hour or more, however fan dedication knows no bounds and manifested in good humour and patience.

Remembering my childhood fantasies, I recognised some of the characters, but as queens and kings roamed the centre, their regal bearing clearing all before them, I struggled to name many, especially the cast of the popular Game of Thrones.

Some characters of course were interpretations and adaptations from literary books that have now become comics, films or graphic novels.

Transformation an obvious theme because cosplay is ideal for shy or introverted people to act out their fantasies or face their internal demons by pretending to be another persona.

Underneath lycra, cotton vests, an array of wigs and headgear, cardboard shields and other paraphernalia, anxieties and feelings of inadequacy disappear.

Various incidents of kindness and courtesy marked the convention too, whether it was people sharing knowledge, helping repair a costume, or saving a place in the many lengthy queues.

Witches and wizards, from Maleficent to Harry Potter, mixed happily at lunchtime; a mutual admiration society gathering around tables sharing pizza slices and sandwiches.

X-rated costumes were few because it is a family convention, although female super heroes in comics and graphic novels have trademark sexiness, and many aspiring lookalikes flashed the flesh.

Young and old, fat or thin, all displayed the same enthusiasm with whole families dressed as the crew from Star Trek, Game of Thrones, the Hobbit, Unhappily Everafter, Guardians of the Galaxy, Firefly, Serenity and numerous other fantasy families.

Zany behaviour perfectly acceptable at these conventions with people indulging in outrageous poses and play-acting, leaving an indelible impression of tolerance, harmony and acceptance of difference and I ponder how truly blessed I am to have been part of Oz Comic-Con 2014.

Mairi Neil 2014

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