A RIOTous Evening of Poetry, Politics And Performance

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The show RIOT finished Friday night, at the Arts Centre Melbourne before heading to New York and certainly fulfilled its promise. There have been many complimentary reviews written already but here’s my tuppence-worth because with luck the performers will return!

RIOT was part of Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival and a show I may have overlooked if not recommended by daughter Anne who volunteered at the Festival. She is also involved with the Women’s Circus and after seeing RIOT last week generously bought me a ticket,

You’ll love it, Mum!’

Indeed, I did!

Uplifting and Joyous – the Power of Laughter

The evening turned out to be a fantastic tonic after a month that’s been difficult on several fronts. Laughter is great medicine and there are plenty of opportunities for laughter in the hour and forty minutes as you participate in RIOT – and there is side-splitting audience participation!

The Fairfax Theatre compact and intimate and although we sat in the back row as the cast moved on and off stage everyone felt involved. The way the performers used the space, especially considering the physical nature of many of the acts, impressive and at times nail-biting.

I can imagine they breathed a sigh of relief each night there were no mishaps.

 

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The set intriguing as we started to take our seats.

 

The Arts Centre blurb describes the show as –

A disorderly cocktail of party and politics, and a love-letter of hope to the future, RIOT is a thrilling, uplifting and unforgettable night out.

Dance, drag, circus and comedy rolled into a gut-punch of wild theatre, RIOT infuses the excitement of a variety show with the energy of the dance floor, setting your hearts and minds ablaze…

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RIOT doesn’t disappoint on any level.

I left the theatre relaxed and yet energised and grateful for being part of something unforgettable…  Friday night was a great example of how performance theatre can be exhilarating and inspirational as well as pure entertainment.

RIOT sold every ticket available in Dublin Fringe, won Best Production and broke box-office records and no wonder because it combines spoken word poetry with a strong social justice message, goosebump-inducing singing, Riverdance style, tap and cabaret dancing, heart-stopping aerial acrobatics, deep belly-laugh and slapstick comedy – and all at a breathless pace for more than an hour and a half!

There is no interval – the flow never interrupted, the pacing excellent. A strong thought-provoking message seamlessly segued into a routine that lightens the mood.

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Midsumma Festival is an annual celebration of queer, intersex, transgender, bisexual, lesbian and gay culture, held during January and February in Melbourne and the all-star Irish cast of RIOT a perfect example of the essence of Midsumma written by self-proclaimed Queen of Ireland, Panti Bliss aka Rory O’Neill, and Emmet Kirwan, actor, playwright and poet.

Panti a drag queen and gay rights activist from Ballinrobe, County Mayo, Ireland and one of the many Marriage Equality champions who helped the campaign here to achieve success despite the ridiculous and expensive postal vote conservative politicians forced on Australia.

Panti wrote much of the original text of RIOT with Emmet Kirwan and also wrote her 2017 one-woman show High Heels in Low Places, plus Woman In The Making: Panti’s Memoir.

The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude. 

George Orwell.

But RIOT isn’t just for minorities or pushing one political barrow. It is a show about being human, about acceptance and tolerance, about social justice, equity and most of all about love and hope for a better world. We can all be the catalysts for change.

The 80s music and song and dance routines with Panti’s patter reminiscent of the intimacy of the club scene.

The spoken word poems powerful and mesmerising like many slam poetry gigs but throw in Britain’s Got Talent semi-finalists Lords of Strut – aka Cian Kinsella and Cormac Mohally with clowning acrobatics, juggling, dancing and patter, add former Gaelic football player Ronan Brady turned aerialist extraordinaire, and you have a carnival of unforgettable talent.

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As a writer, I paid close attention to the spoken word segments, especially Heartbreak about a teenage girl getting pregnant performed by Kate Brennan.

In a few powerful words we learn the choice or lack thereof in Ireland regarding contraception and abortion, the attitudes of family, society,  church and state, the challenges girls face struggling to raise a child alone and the teenage perspective on parenting and the future.

Written by award-winning playwright Emmet Kirwan, the piece has been adapted and brought to a wider audience with a seven-minute short film, and it is worth watching on Youtube.

Here are selections of an interview with Emmet by RTE Entertainment that give some insight into his decision to write Heartbreak for the stage, turn it into a short film and release it to as wide an audience as possible through social media and why you then must let it go – if people are inspired or motivated to consider other people’s perspectives or lives so be it…

It’s one of those things when you do something, you’re not actually 100 percent about anything until it’s viewed by an audience.

I didn’t have any ballpark thing; I was just hoping that people would see it and that basically, the video would be like a delivery system for the poem. That was the primary goal of it, but when you bring in other people like Dave, they turn it into something that’s not just a poem.

… essentially it’s just about giving something to the debate. What happens a lot of time in debates is it’s a lot of didactic statements bouncing off each other and they don’t actually touch a nerve with anybody because these things are just figures on a page or sound bites.

So if you can make something that’s essentially a statistic into a story it has more impact.

If it has an impact, it has.

And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t – it’s not world-ending. As far as I’m concerned it’s done its job in the sense that it’s just out there.

Whatever happens to it now is up to whoever sees it.

There are a lot of surprises in RIOT and when light and sound disappears abruptly the audience are encouraged to bring their mobile phones to the rescue. It doesn’t take you long to realise it is all part of the performance but it is a cleverly woven segment.

Alma Kelliher, the musical brain behind RIOT, influenced by folk, gospel and close vocal harmony. The secretary of the Irish Society of Stage and Screen Designers, her music has been performed throughout Europe, USA, Asia and Australia.

I sat between my two daughters who recognised and loved the 80s songs. The tunes were catchy but I was too busy being a new mum in the 80s so couldn’t sing along like they did but did recognise the fluorescent and gaudy colour schemes of 80s fashion and loved how the stage adaptations glittered, gleamed, shimmied and shook.

A Carnival of Talent

Cabaret, clubs, theatre, circus – RIOT an amazing carnival of entertaining talent: there is an aerial and ground performer with muscle control which must be the envy of the best dancers and circus acts in the world. 

I know my daughter is itching to be as good as Ronan Brady one day.

His feats are jaw-dropping and inspire collective audience breath holding.

Yet this same athletic performer dances and does spoofs on adverts that demean women and pokes fun at stereotypes gay and straight.

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald Rory aka Panti explains how the revolutionary show came into being during the centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin and how Ronan got involved.

Riot came from a conversation one day when we were talking about Riverdance, what it said about Ireland at the time, and we wondered what would our Riverdance look like?

Emmet is very well known here in Ireland for having a social conscience, so he wrote these incredible sorts of poems, and then I wrote some as well and those things are what pull everything else through…

… former Gaelic football player Ronan Brady …  took to aerial work as a means to limber up following injury, and the practice stuck.

When we found him, Ronan was a great aerialist and all that and he’s very handsome – perfect! – but he had never done anything like this, or with people like us.

So he turns up for the very first day, a photoshoot long before we got into the rehearsal room, and the gayest costume designer in the world hands him a pair of Speedos, and Panti is there.

At the time, he handled it very well but we know now he was just like, ‘What the f—?!’

He had no idea what he had let himself in for. He had never even met a gay person. But he’s firmly okay with it all by now.

Loud and Proud Without Hubris

There is Heartache, but also Harmony, Humour… and most of all Happiness.

2018 needs a RIOT and I wish Panti and crew luck as they continue their world tour. Who knows they may even inspire a Trump tweet!

 

A Fortnight, Fear, And The Future

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The months of media speculation finally over and the world now waits with bated breath to see what kind of president Donald Trump will be.

I’m not going to pretend that his win and some of the views of his supporters not only depress and sadden me but also leave a huge question mark over whether the world as we know it will get better or worse.

I feel like I’m in a Monty Python skit and agreeing with John Cleese’s view on life,  ‘what is the bloody point!’

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However, we have survived upheavals and bad leaders before, and now is the time for writers, poets and songwriters to speak up, and letter writers to get busy –

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For several days, I hoped Trump’s election was a bad dream. But as we see protocols and conventions corrupted and ignored,  an array of extreme right-wing, racist, and rabid people placed in powerful positions, we have to accept this is the reality for four years – maybe longer.

A bleak future but we can prove the pen is mightier than the sword and an effective weapon as Trump’s success  unleashes a new push from the ‘loony’ right (climate-change deniers et al) that will make any progress incredibly hard to achieve. The environment an area where we will have to work hard to convince those in authority and the doubting public, we can’t afford to dither or go backwards.

No More Divisive Slogans

The slogan ‘make America great again’ a frightening premonition of what could come and the people who will be excluded, exiled, ejected, expelled, perhaps even eliminated if the KKK have their way!

The implication being America was great before the inclusion of immigrants, empowered women, LBGTIQ and civil rights for African Americans, that ideas and voices of modern America don’t matter, and as Trump’s corporate America tramples over the rights of the Sioux in Dakota, neither do Native Americans. 

I hope many of those who voted for change rather than Trump’s extreme positions will now work to make  change happen decently and fairly and will speak up against divisive policies.

There are plenty of Americans who will challenge outrageous decisions and prove the campaign rhetoric wrong, just as many activists here rally regularly when they feel the government needs reminding to govern for all communities.

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Our community defines us as much as we define our community!

I believe in people power, the power of community, the importance of belonging and inclusion – of welcoming difference rather than embracing fear.

Working in community houses, starting and belonging to community groups, I’ve learned that people have more in common than what divides them – most people want a peaceful world where they can go about their business, bring up their kids, and be happy and healthy.

I love the message from Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly’s song From Little Things, Big Things Grow  – the Gurindji stayed resolute for over 8 years in their fight for land rights and pay equity – an inspiration and example of not giving up.

Recent experiences of the wonderful work being done in our diverse community have kept me sane while the media feeds on a frenzy of bad news.

To stop being smothered by the cloud of despair, I have to be pro-active seeking out people with similar values, people who not only care but do something to make it a better world.

Marriot Support Services AGM

“Specialising in the areas of day services, transition programs and employment for adults with intellectual disabilities, Marriott Support Services is a not-for-profit organisation. It is our aim to achieve greater inclusion in the wider community for people with disability. Let us stand beside you while you reach your goals.  “

I discovered Marriott when Jen, one of the program managers came to my Professional Writing & Editing Class held Monday evenings at Godfrey Street Community House, Bentleigh in 2012 -13.

Marriot offers people with disabilities choices and opportunities for the whole of their adult life in the areas of:

  • Employment
  • Day Services
  • Transition

The organisation, established in the 70s, relies heavily on volunteers as well as government grants. It is also pro-active in generating their own income in various enterprises.

Marriott Industries operates in a modern, fully equipped 3,600 square metre factory offering a suite of services including Pick’n’Pack, Light Assembly, Collating, Sorting, Re Work, Promotional Packs, Shrink Wrapping, Container Unloads and a complete Fulfilment Service.

 Marriott Enviro Services specialises in medium to large commercial horticultural and landcare management.  A qualified management team has decades of horticultural experience between them. Managers and supervisors work alongside a team of 60 employees, in crews of three to five.

Our fleet of modern, well-maintained vehicles and machinery allows us to complete jobs on time and within budget in the areas of:
  • Landcare Management
  • Landscaping
  • Mowing/Commercial
  • Garden Maintenance

 

At the AGM, the auditor reported a healthy bank balance, guest speaker Tim Wilson MP and Virginia Rogers, Chair of Marriott’s Board presented numerous awards for years of service and achievement – the volunteer input ranging from one  to thirty years!

In the room, the enthusiasm, pride and commitment from clients, parents and staff abounded! None more so than the enthusiastic choir (the Marriott Musos) who invited Tim and Virginia to join them in a unique rendition of ‘We Still Call Australia Home’.

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Jen met my daughter, Mary Jane and after learning about her skills in media arts invited Mary Jane to get involved with Marriott.

Mary Jane volunteered and then worked on a digital story project, about people building the social fabric through volunteering. This was funded by a grant from Glen Eira Council.

Networking and six degrees of separation at work…

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Jen and Mary Jane

The project was launched at the AGM and several stories were presented. These can be accessed from Marriott’s website, some are on Youtube:

Jessie’s story

Chris’s story

Jeffrey’s story

Stephanie’s Story

Andrew’s Story

I was a proud mother at the AGM seeing Mary Jane’s digital stories presented – stories celebrating difference and inclusion – stories empowering the participants, stories that may make people think differently about disability.

Mentone Public Library – A Community Asset for 91 Years

I attended another AGM as a participant, not an observer. Mentone Public Library is probably the last subscription library still operating in Victoria and enthusiastically run by a volunteer committee of two now: Julia Reichstein and Tony Brooker.

The AGM revealed a volunteer drought in the City of Kingston, yet the need for the wonderful work Julia and Tony do in promoting local authors, many of whom may not be promoted elsewhere, is obvious.

It is an uphill battle for little known or first-time authors  to be read or afford publicity – Julia’s monthly author events have allowed the public to meet, listen and get up close and personal (yes, the space is small!) with many writers, including Mordialloc Writers’ Group who read selections from Kingston My City for Seniors’ Week celebrations after Amanda Apthorpe read from her latest novel.

A serious looking me with Amanda after her detailed talk about the Greek mythology underpinning her novels. And below, three long-term  members of Mordialloc Writers’ Group: Jillian Bailey, Maureen Hanna and Glenice Whitting.

Next Saturday ( November 26) Glenice Whitting will be the guest author promoting her latest novel, Something Missing.

Two current Kingston councillors and two past councillors were present at the AGM, plus the retiring volunteer Treasurer Lorna (who wants to write her family history and memoir!), the Secretary of the local history society, and a recent volunteer Paul who has retired from the public service and wants to get involved in a community group. (Paul coincidentally used to attend Mordialloc Writers many years ago – yes, it is a small world!)

Two local writers were at the meeting – me and Yvette from Blue Chair Poets. It was a pity more writers who have benefitted from the author events didn’t accept the invitation to attend because Julia and Tony welcomed ideas about how to maintain the library and keep hosting author events for the community. The discussion would have been enriched by more stakeholders contributing their voices.

Although Julia was happy sending me this email:

Thank-you all so much for your attendance, support and input today. You brought much food for thought and instilled in the library team much confidence and hope for the future. We look forward to working with you and hosting you again at the library for future events and meetings.

Writing Class and End Of Year Anthologies

Another event that kept me from sinking into the black hole is the organising of end-of -year anthologies for the classes I teach in neighbourhood houses.

When reading the wonderful stories, poems, anecdotes, memoir and short stories everyone has produced, I relive the amazing discussions we have in class.

I hear the voices, the tears, the laughter and joy. I am in awe of the imaginative use of words, the profound reflections on life,  and the untold stories from history.

The collections bear witness to the hard work writers put in polishing their words. The pride and sense of achievement when they hold printed copies in their hands and can’t believe how much they have written over the term.

I’m still editing and collating but gradually getting there – what would writers be without deadlines! What would I be without writing to focus on!

Learning from ABI

And finally for this post, another group in the community that keeps me grounded and appreciative of family, friends and good health.

These last few months, I’ve been facilitating  Chat ‘N Chuckle,  a social get-together Friday fortnights of people with ABI (Acquired Brain Injury) either by accidents (overwhelmingly in motor vehicles) or through strokes.

The group organised by Belinda Jordan, Community Development Officer of Glen Eira City Council, but initiated by one of my students, Anat Bigos who had a traumatic car accident 11 years ago. Anat is a fantastic example of no matter what hand life deals, play it to the best of your ability.

Anat lives with short-term memory loss as well as reduced physical agility, as do many who have ABI. The patience and understanding the group have with each other and the sense of humour about the vagaries of changed minds and bodies is humbling and inspirational.

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There are 16 participants in the group, with numbers fluctuating each fortnight according to people’s availability, but on average 8 or 9 turn up to share stories and have a chuckle! The expertise and life experience in the group range from young people in their early 20s to older retired people.

Often carers will sit in too and share their interesting lives.

Opportunities for research projects and tips to improve mobility and memory are swapped with many of the group presenting regularly to schools.

Last Friday Phillip, who had a stroke that ended his accountancy career, showed us a short film he uses when he talks to school children about APHASIA The Treasure Hunt an award winning animation.

Aphasia is an impairment of language, affecting the production or comprehension of speech and the ability to read or write. Aphasia is always due to injury to the brain-most commonly from a stroke, particularly in older individuals. But brain injuries resulting in aphasia may also arise from head trauma, from brain tumors, or from infections.

Aphasia can be so severe as to make communication with the patient almost impossible, or it can be very mild. It may affect mainly a single aspect of language use, such as the ability to retrieve the names of objects, or the ability to put words together into sentences, or the ability to read. More commonly, however, multiple aspects of communication are impaired, while some channels remain accessible for a limited exchange of information.

As a writer, I can’t imagine what it would be like not recognising words, losing words from my vocabulary, or being confused and mixing up words.

This group of ‘chatty chucklers,’show such dedication to getting on with life to the best of their ability.  They are examples of  how a community builds relationships with a sense of purpose and mutual respect. An example of surviving against the odds.

So despite the doom and gloom elsewhere, I do appreciate and feel blessed that in my tiny corner of the world there are many people working to make life better for others. There is no magic wand just magical people!

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Nothing Trivial About Halloween

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Sometimes a random event or deliberate attempt to move out of our comfort zone is needed to remind us it’s not ‘all about me’ and that the world on Earth is as diverse as the planets in the universe.

For most of us, each day is not a new adventure but the ‘same old, same old’ unless we make an effort to spice up our lives. Often this is during holiday times, entertaining visitors, celebrating anniversaries or birthdays, or special seasonal highlights like Christmas or  Halloween!

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Halloween celebrated in many countries on 31st October, commemorates the feast of All Hallows Day – the word being a contraction of All Hallows’ Eve . This Christian festival is thought to have been combined with the ancient pagan Celtic festival of Samhain (Samhuinn in Gaelic) held on November 1, to mark the culmination of summer and the harvest period with the onset of the cold, dark winter.

The festival symbolised the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead. On the night of 31st October, ghosts of the dead would walk again amongst them. If humans dared to walk abroad they needed light in the form of bonfires or lanterns. They disguised themselves by dressing up or wearing masks and offered gifts of food to keep the ghouls sweet!

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Most people are unaware of the strong Scottish connection and consider Halloween an American import to Australia – especially with the increase of commercialism attached to the event in the last few years. When I first arrived in Australia in 1962, Halloween was a non-event.

I’ve written about my Scottish childhood in Guising & Galoshens, a memoir extract published online in America explaining the traditions we celebrated.  Also, the poem, Halloween  by Robert Burns, one of my father’s favourite poets, depicts traditional beliefs and celebrations going back centuries for the Scots.

  • Guising or galoshens – where we dressed in old clothes visiting neighbours and singing or reciting a song, poem or joke before being rewarded with goodies.
  • Dookin’ for apples – a  game involving trying to grab apples floating in a tub of water by using your mouth with your hands behind your back, or sitting on a chair and trying to spear an apple by dropping a fork from your mouth into the water.
  • Treacle scones – with hands tied or held behind your back, and in some cases blindfolded, participants of this game have to take a bite out of treacle covered scones hanging from ropes after being spun around and made disoriented.

Halloween
Mairi Neil

On the last night of October beware,
The witches and spirits are about
Make sure you dress with special care.
On the last night of October beware,
Perform some tricks for delicious fare
But be extra polite and never shout
On the last night of October beware,
The witches and spirits are about.

Scary apparitions wander street and lane
Halloween is their special night
Your imagination may drive you insane
Scary apparitions wander street and lane.
It’s a night for real ghosts to reign
In the dark where there’s no light
Scary apparitions wander the lanes.
Halloween is their special night.

Ordinary people may don a disguise
As shadowy figures designed to scare
Werewolves, wizards and witches rise
Ordinary people may don a disguise
The ‘best pretend ghoul’ wins the prize
‘Take off your mask’ the fearless dare
To ordinary people donning a disguise
As shadowy figures designed to scare

And as we wander lane and street
Witches and spirits love Halloween
We never think any harm we’ll meet
In that wandering of lane and street
Believing ghosts are just bedsheets
Real evil ghouls are never seen
As we wander lane and street – oh!
We forgot real ghouls love Halloween!

Halloween With a Difference

In Melbourne, Halloween falls in spring. By October, we’ve already changed the clocks to give ourselves more daylight making a mockery of many of the traditions associated with Halloween that emphasise darkness – literally and metaphorically – many of the traditions from a different hemisphere just don’t gel.

But who needs logic once you enter the realm of the supernatural, witches, spirits and mythology?  Australians are adaptable if nothing else. We are a multi-cultural melting pot, therefore many people and places  throw themselves into macabre theatricality for Halloween. (The ‘ghoulish’ photos on here were taken at The Greyhound in St Kilda.)

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On Thursday evening, October 27, I went to The Greyhound Hotel and joined my daughters and two of their friends for a Buffy Trivia night.

The Hellmouth comes to St Kilda for one night only!

Buffy Trivia is coming to the GH hotel.

Join your hostesses Amena Jay and Penny Cillin for a night of trivia to test your knowledge on all things Sunnydale, with special themed shows including songs from Once More With Feeling.

The GH kitchen will be open with heaps of delicious dinner options available.

Heaps of prizes up for grabs, for the winners of each round, best costume and a cash prize for the overall winning team.

So grab your scoobies and book a table now – this one will sell out fast! (teams must be between 2 – 6 only)

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For the uninitiated, Buffy the Vampire Slayer from film and a long-running TV series developed a huge fan-fiction base. Written by Joss Whedon, the character of Buffy is a slayer, one in a long line of young women chosen for a specific mission: to seek out and destroy vampires, demons and other forces of darkness.

Buffy is at high school and surrounds herself with best friends who are helpers in the fight against darkness. My daughter started watching the show when she was young and fell in love with Joss Whedon’s characters and his writing – he certainly knows how to write suspense and for emotional engagement!

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MJ is regarded as an expert on Buffy – which is one of the reasons her older sister Anne suggested we book a table for the Trivia Night. For those old enough to remember the beginnings of a show called Mastermind Mary Jane could be on that show with Buffy as her special subject, she is that good!

MELBOURNE’S PREMIER ENTERTAINMENT VENUE.

When you think of the GH hotel the first thing that comes to mind is, ‘Iconic St Kilda pub offering a little bit of something for everyone’! With a terrific public bar offering Tasty food, great drink specials and some light hearted entertainment it is the perfect place for an after work drink or chilled out Sunday session.

One of Melbourne’s original live entertainment venues the GH has not only stood the test of time but a recent multi million dollar renovation has seen the addition of the incredible Showroom, playing host to a variety of International acts as well as our own long-running stage shows and DJ’s every Friday and Saturday night.

The evening at The Greyhound was hosted by two well-known drag queens who entertained the crowd through three rounds of quizzes.

MJ did not disappoint  – we were on table 13 (an omen?) – and she came equal first with 9 out of 10 for the first two rounds, only missing out on the third round.

In the bag full of prizes she won for our team called “We wear the cheese’ (a quote that Buffy enthusiasts recognise) there was at least some memorabilia she didn’t have – although not the point of the evening, it is nice she was rewarded. The rest of us wouldn’t have won.

The show was a far cry from anything I’d experienced as a child dressing up and performing for Halloween! It was the first time I’d been to a drag queen performance.

There were plenty of gender jokes and much made of the dresses (several fabulous outfits) and generally mocking each other. The show definitely not ‘politically correct’.  I’m sure some feminists may be offended but clothes don’t define who or what we are and I accepted the over-the-top performances as entertainment. There was no malice in the banter between Amena Jay and Penny Cillin or their interaction with the audience.

The Buffy Trivia Night was fun, the food excellent and it was lovely being with my two daughters and their friends. It allowed MJ and me to recall our wonderful trip to LA in 2012 when we visited the house and high school used for the Buffy Tv series.

The Halloween of my childhood was a time filled with mystery, magic, and superstition rooted in the past. Many of the customs and games I accepted without wondering about their origin. However, in adulthood, on reflection I understand where a lot of my Irish mother’s superstitious sayings and actions come from – in some cases generations of mythology and belief:

  • Avoid crossing paths with black cats because they might bring bad luck.

This idea from the Middle Ages when many people believed that witches avoided detection by turning themselves into cats.

  • Don’t walk under ladders because that invites disaster or bad luck.

This superstition may have come from the ancient Egyptian belief that triangles were sacred.

  •  Avoid breaking mirrors – or risk seven years bad luck.

This dates back to the Romans who believed it took seven years for life to renew itself. If  not of good health, your image would break the mirror and the run of bad luck would continue for the period of seven years, at the end of which  life would be renewed, the body  physically rejuvenated, and the curse ended.

  • Don’t step on  cracks in the road because misfortune will strike

Cracks on the road or pavement lead directly to the underworld and evil demons just waiting to be released. Cracks  signal gaps in the boundaries between the earthly realm and the metaphysical realm.

  • Don’t spill salt or sit 13 at the dinner table or you’ll have bad luck.

These two common superstitions originate from The Last Supper. A close examination of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper, reveals that Judas Iscariot has knocked the salt cellar over with his elbow. Spilled salt became associated with treachery and lies and so if you spill salt, a pinch thrown over your left shoulder is supposed to blind the devil waiting there. Da Vinci painted the symbolism but the origin is probably from earlier times.

In ancient times, salt was expensive and precious, in some cases  used as currency. Spilling salt was tantamount to throwing away money therefore must have been caused by the devil. A pinch over your shoulder would blind the devil and make him think twice about trying to trick again.

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Today, Halloween provides a safe way to play with the concept of death. People dress up as all sorts of characters including the living dead. In America fake gravestones adorn front lawns along with giant spider webs, skeletons, witches suspended from trees and other decorations. Parties and activities are organised that wouldn’t be tolerated at other times of the year.

Crass commercialism and mass marketing aside, Halloween can be time spent having fun socialising and exploding some of the silly superstitions that have no place in the real world.

Let’s drink to diversity, difference, and delight in all things trivial!

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Ironing the Wrinkles of Memory

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‘Knowing how to fold fitted sheets changed my life.’ A not so surprising statement from my traveller daughter on her return from three years in North America. Always organised and house proud, we often joked Anne’s cleaning frenzies bordered on OCD.

However, her announcement about the sheets as she helped me put away the laundry made me laugh and hug her. ‘You’re so like your dad, everything has to be shipshape. You’d have done well in the navy too.’

‘Well it made such a difference when I worked in the Dermatology Clinic in Toronto. We laundered everyday and if sheets are folded properly they’re so easy to put away.’

Anne grabbed another fitted sheet from my dishevelled linen cupboard and proceeded to demonstrate what she meant. Her sea-blue eyes sparkled and she flashed me the trademark smile I’d missed. ‘You’ll see, it’ll change your life too. Now, come and have a go.’

I stood by the ironing board as daughter taught mother. ‘Well, well, well,’ I said with a grin and went through the motions of folding a fitted sheet so it looked as neatly packaged as a normal one. ‘ You can teach an old dog new tricks.’

I stared at the sheets and returned to my 1950s Scottish childhood. Mum, bringing in the washing from the back green and airing it on the pulley suspended from the kitchen ceiling.

‘Can I help fold the sheets, Mum?’ I said, the ever-eager helper.

‘Aye, love, now take those ends.’ And so I learnt to fold sheets, but not without a lot of laughter because invariably we’d sing:

Shoogly shaggly over the glen

Mammy’s we pet, Daddy’s wee hen –

1,2,3, – out”

I’d have put a doll on the sheet to bounce up and down before being tipped out as we folded the sheet over. This was a common game for adults to play, bouncing a baby or toddler in a blanket. Older siblings amused each other by bouncing younger ones and with peals of laughter and squeals everyone anticipated that last bounce and the tipping onto a bed, mattress or soft grass.

Working class improvisation of a trampoline, I suppose!

I played shoogly shaggly with my girls as well and taught them how to make beds with hospital corners – a skill passed on from my ex-nurse mother. A well-made bed important not just for appearances, but comfort.

Anne snapped me out of my reverie. ‘See Mum, all the sheets fit on the shelves in neat piles?’

‘Aye, love,’ I said, channelling my Mother, ‘and isn’t it wonderful none of them need ironing!’ And so began the proverbial trip down memory lane…

I remember the heavy clunk, as the iron connected with our rickety wooden-framed ironing board. The old-fashioned instrument of my childhood, heavy and cumbersome to use. I remember too, the many burns I received from the iron’s hot silver sides while learning how to iron what seemed to be an endless pile of washing produced by our family of eight.

One particular evening sticks in my mind when my sister Catriona and I shared the weekly ironing pile and counted 64 shirts and blouses! This was the era when gender roles were very clearly defined, most garments were made of cotton, and starched and pressed clothes standard attire.

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Depending on the items and the quantity to be ironed, the ironing board remained folded against the wall of the dinette and the thickness of an old blanket on the Formica kitchen table sufficed. This at least softened the noise and provided a wider surface than the ironing board, circa 1900, inherited from Dad’s mother.

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Mum taught me the necessary skill for domesticity by letting me practice on handkerchiefs, serviettes, pillowcases and tray cloths. Uncomplicated ironing. However, like Erma Bombeck, I avoid the task of ironing now and shake my head in disbelief at memories of begging Mum to ‘let me help’.

Children learn what they live

Dorothy Law Nolte, PhD said children learn what they live and I suppose my introduction and desire to learn household chores such as ironing, emulated Mum. Born in 1953, even if my parents wanted more for me than to be a housewife, the message society broadcast on every level, said girls had to be good at housework. We were baby machines, supportive wives and proud housewives, and should know our place.

This message reinforced when I joined the Brownies, and later Girl Guides, although they also encouraged independence, ingenuity and imagination. My keenness to iron well and progress to more complex items, a necessity, and duly rewarded by various cloth badges to sew on my uniform. I could proudly declare I was a good helper around the house.

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I’ve still got my little brass Elf badge given when I joined and made the Brownie Promise:

I promise to do my best:
To do my duty to God and the Queen
To help other people everyday
especially those at home.

Every week I’d polish my shoes and leather belt, don my brown uniform, brown beret and yellow tie and go to the local community hall to be with the other Pixies in my Brownie pack.

From memory I think one badge, the Busy Bee sported a bright yellow bumblebee. The Thrift badge an easy one to achieve in our working class home because with limited money and many mouths to feed, thriftiness became our family motto.

While the boy scouts wandered the neighbourhood fundraising for ‘Bob a Job’ and chopping wood, weeding or carrying shopping, we were firmly indoctrinated for our role as future wives and mothers.

I made something new out of something old by cutting up an old towelling nappy to make a face-washer and sewed blanket stitch to decorate its new hems. I helped Mum set a fire in the grate, clean out the ashes and fill the coal scuttle. The Homemakers and Laundry Badge involved, cleaning and dusting, setting the table, washing dishes and keeping my shared bedroom tidy (a bone of contention because I shared a bedroom for years). The white picket fence boundaries of the ‘50s well and truly delineated.

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Mum used an electric iron, a far cry from the old pre World War Two flat irons, which had to be heated on the kitchen range. However, the first electric irons had no thermostat, and you tested its heat in the time-honoured way of licking your finger and dabbing the plate, or spitting lightly. The temperature judged from the sizzling of skin or spittle.

The absence of steam irons or iron that squirted water a burden because most clothes were made of cotton or linen and had to be ironed damp for the best result. Drip dry synthetics became popular after the war, made of fabric that did not wrinkle when hung dripping wet to dry to avoid ironing, but in a climate like Scotland, they took a long time to dry and who wanted clothes dripping from the pulley? Early nylon clothes washed and dried with minimum wrinkles could melt if the iron too hot. Mum often removed the clothes from the line before they were quite dry to make the pressing easier.

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When we came to live in Australia, Mum took paid work in Johnson Bros. Pottery, to help save and build our own home. The washing and ironing became a shared chore, particularly when Mum worked regular overtime and Saturday morning shifts.

On many occasions clothes missed the washing cycle and had to be ironed dry if we wanted to wear them to a particular function. Steam rising from clothes straight from the washing machine, a  never to be forgotten smell. If stains from the iron or ironing board cover ruined the  item, the curses colouring the air blue not forgotten either.

Clothes were scorched when the iron over heated, and trousers and skirts developed an unacceptable shine if a damp pressing cloth forgotten (one of Dad’s large handkerchiefs our regular pressing cloth).

In my teenage years, hands and arms bore scars from sears and burns. Reminders of carelessness, lapsed concentration, being too particular, or lacking skill and strength to manipulate the iron around intricate cuffs, collars, folds and pleats.

The smell of pressed wool and linen and damp serge still lingers in nostrils, and years later I wonder if the wear and tear in my shoulder joints date back to the heavy repetitive nature of household tasks such as ironing. Teenage years in the 70s even saw us iron our long hair – no fancy hair straighteners in those days just the revolting smell of singed hair.

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The second hand Hoover washing machine we inherited in Australia was a tiny single tub with a broken spin dryer. It sat on the concrete floor of an unlined, tinned roof, weatherboard outhouse fitted out as a laundry – our very own Turkish bathhouse in summer and Siberian prison in winter. We hooked the clothes from the washing machine and placed them in two huge concrete laundry sinks filled with cold water for rinsing and fed them through a mangle attached to the side of the sink.

The first manual wringer gave arm and shoulder muscles a good workout, but then we went upmarket to an electric mangle. I can’t remember if this was a hand-me-down from one of Aunt Chrissie’s many friends or a bargain Dad found and fixed. In those early days, scrounging became an art form; offers of help never rejected, but taken in the spirit of good neighbourliness. Our maxim ‘one man’s rubbish, another man’s treasure.’

The old fashioned mangles squeezed a lot of the moisture from the clothes reducing the weight and unpleasantness of hanging washing out dripping wet, although some items had to be fed through the hard rubber rollers a couple of times. The electric mangle fascinated ten year old me and in the excitement of feeding clothes through faster to spend more time playing with friends, I often tangled the clothes into bunches, and jammed the machine.

On rare occasions, trying to be too smart or fast, I fed sheets through before removing my hand from their folds. Luckily, the off switch easily reached by connections installed by Uncle Bill McKendrick, a first class electrician. The bruises and pain not so quickly fixed, or my injured pride from the harsh lecture I’d receive from Mum. I hated letting her down by appearing incompetent, aware she felt guilty at not keeping abreast of household chores. Mum and Dad worked incredibly long hours chasing money to pay the rent, put food on the table, and clothe and educate us.

Australia is a paradise for laundering clothes compared to Scotland where inclement weather makes drying clothes outside difficult. I remember washing hanging from the pulley suspended from the kitchen ceiling, or hung over wooden maidens (clothes horses) placed in front of the living room fire. Steam rising as if the clothes were smoking, a common sight in winter. The clothes dried inside always smelled of coal, if dried in the living room, or of the variety of food cooked, when dried in the kitchen.

Pulleys were fixed to the ceiling and lowered by a rope which would be then tied to a hook on the wall to keep it level until loaded with washing. When full, the pulley would be hoisted to near the ceiling. It could hold a lot of washing and Mum used it to air the clothes this way too, even in summer. Depending on what was on the menu, she’d take them down before cooking because the smell of fish could linger for days on clothes.

In the winter, Mum always had a coal fire burning in the living room with the rest of the house unheated unless we were flush with money and could feed the gas heater to heat water piped to upstair rooms with wall radiators. Most working class homes made decisions about heating depending on their budget. My Dad being a railwayman, always had work and took every piece of overtime offered so the coalman topped our bunker up at regular intervals, but even we would have struggled to feed more than one fireplace in winter.

Several neighbours whose husbands worked in the shipyards where work was seasonal and either boom or bust – often ran out of coal . They’d ask Mum if they could borrow a bucket of coal until payday and Mum never refused. There were households where the breadwinner drank heavily or the woman at home had poor or non-existent housekeeping skills. These families suffered all year, especially the Jepson family who lived across the road from us. Not only were they constantly in debt and having to borrow food and fuel, but when the Council inspector did his annual rounds, Mrs Jepson asked to borrow our kitchen cupboard doors because they had burnt theirs when they ran out of coal.

Sometimes damp washing hung on the fireguard, if more drying space was needed. Mum kept an eye on these clothes. A roaring fire generated a lot of heat and a gust of wind down the chimney could send flames awry. Drying washing could be scorched or even set alight. We were alerted to the danger of fire at an early age.

Our neighbours, ‘through the wall’ as Scottish vernacular referred to the close proximity of those who lived in semi-detached council houses,  were Kathy and Jimmy Johnson. They had a daughter Maureen, a few years older than my sister Catriona. We had not long moved to the house in Davaar Road when Mum witnessed a tragic incident she never forgot.

Teenager Maureen received a present of a nightie made out of nylon and lace, synthetic materials grown in popularity since the war. She was brushing her hair in front of the mirror hanging above the mantlepiece when flames flared and licked at her nightie. In seconds, her clothes were aflame, melting and sticking to her body. Her long hair caught alight. Maureen’s screams seared into Mum’s memory, as was the sight of the teenager running outside and throwing herself onto the ground.

Adrenalin kicked in, Mum, scaled the side fence like an Olympian, ordered Kathy to grab the rug from the hallway and throw it over Maureen. Between them they got the fire out. Mum called an ambulance. Luckily, for the Johnsons, we were one of only two families in the street with a telephone connected.

Maureen Johnson spent several weeks in hospital and although most of her scars were hidden, she had to live for the rest of her life with skin like a washer board on her torso. (No pressure suits in those days.)

If ever we ventured too close to the fire or complained about not being hot enough, Mum reminded us of Maureen. She also made sure no matter what house we lived in there was never a mirror above the fireplace.

My younger sister, Rita confesses to enjoying ironing – it’s her thinking time she says and I’m sure other people feel the same. Meanwhile my aversion has continued to grow. Perhaps, Catriona and I had too much ‘thinking time’.

Mum with unexpected visitor and pile of ironing

Certainly, I adopted Mum’s later attitude that ironing was ‘a waste of energy’. Her mantra my daughters know well, ‘the heat of your body will soon get those creases out.’

Ironically, when John and I struggled to pay the mortgage in 1990, a time when our then Prime Minister, Paul Keating said, ‘… this is the recession that Australia had to have,’ I  regularly ironed a mountain of shirts, but this time I was paid by the people who dropped their ironing off and I was grateful!

Nowadays, I check the labels of all clothes –– if there’s special washing or ironing instructions, I don’t buy. Life is too short and there are a lot more pressing (and enjoyable) matters to take up my time!

Who does your ironing?