Olympic Memories Make a Moving Memoir

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After a few days of almost Spring weather, mercurial Melbourne reminded me it is still officially winter and inadvertently revealed a trace of the past. Above, is an outline which appeared on the kitchen window, of a butterfly sticker removed over two years ago!

The heat generated by the gas heater, plus steam from the pot of sweet potato and lentil soup I was cooking for a Union of Australian Women luncheon, revealed this outline despite the glass being cleaned umpteen times  since the sticker was removed.

I’ve never noticed this outline before (day or night) – a ghostlike skeleton from the past – a reminder of something no longer in existence.

A great metaphor for memoir and life story writing when we never know what memory will pop up or be triggered to write about…

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I love creative writing and the four classes I’m teaching this year at three neighbourhood houses (Mordialloc, Longbeach Place, and Godfrey Street) enables me to meet many passionate writers and hear their wonderful stories.

If I can encourage and facilitate these stories into print to be widely shared I feel a sense of accomplishment – especially if the stories are from life experiences. This is how we appreciate and learn from each other – and I’m forever amazed at what turns up!

The Olympic Games

School teachers love the Olympics and plan lessons in all subjects around the theme, but I don’t specifically do that in adult classes. However, what a delightful surprise when a student in the Wednesday Life Stories & Legacy class entertained us with her connection to the 1956 Olympic Games held in Melbourne.

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An unused postcard found in the Croydon house when we migrated here in 1962

Donna, not only wrote about the links she had with the 16th Olympiad but brought in a jar containing part of the famous field finishing line!

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This ‘show and tell’ was in response to previous lessons when we discussed nostalgia and memories. Sometimes in class, an item is mentioned and the whole group gives a collective laugh or sigh and says, “Oh, I remember that” or “I haven’t thought about that in years.”

Think carefully…

Have you an item/relic from days gone by, no longer useful apart from being an oddity? Have a look in drawers and cupboards and write about it before passing it on to the op shop!

Donna turned up with an old chutney jar from the back of her mother’s kitchen cupboard. This jar had a piece of the turf from the finishing line (white chalk barely discernible after more than half a century later), historic in more ways than one!

  • The 16th Olympiad was the first time the Games had been held in Australia, and classed as the ‘Friendly Games’
  • It was the beginning of the tradition whereby all athletes walk into the Closing Ceremony as one group, and not individual countries.

newspaper article 1956 Olympics

The above newspaper clipping featuring Donna’s mother, “Mrs. John Hellier” explains how she was in a position to souvenir such a piece of Olympic memorabilia.

Heather Hellier was the private secretary to Sir William Bridgeford, the chief executive officer of the Olympic Committee. It was her job to put overseas visitors and other dignitaries at ease (notably the Duke of Edinburgh and Australia’s PM Sir Robert Menzies) as well as a host of officials and journalists from all participating countries.

A typical day for Heather included:

  • arranging press conferences with Sir William for Australian and visiting journalists
  • arranging plane tickets and hotel bookings for one of his interstate tours to publicise the Games
  • typing his many speeches
  • dealing with correspondence and telephone calls
  • receiving numerous guests, visitors, and queries
  • assisting planning for official banquets and receptions (before, during and after the Games) including those for Royal guests of honour
  • controlling the steady stream of people paying courtesy calls and business people seeking meetings with Sir William during the Games

 

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Donna reading her story while Annie reads a copy of the newspaper article

Donna recalled some of her mother’s conversation about that exciting time when she probably had one of the most prestigious and memorable secretarial positions available.

For my mother , it meant long hours, care for every detail, and constant polite communication, culminating in the Games themselves, which were a well-ordered whirlwind of inspirational efforts, patriotic pride, the honouring of Olympic ideals, as well as meetings with Prime Minister Menzies and even a chat about cycling with the Duke of Edinburgh…

It was frantic but went like clockwork due to all the careful planning.

There were winners and there were losers, heroics, and even bloodshed in the pool as the Cold War managed to enter the Melbourne Olympics, better known from that day to this as The Friendly Games…

… as their feet went over that white chalk line they were as one, no longer divided by country. There were many tears shed as the Olympic flag was taken down, the Olympic Flame extinguished and the athletes left the stadium… 

… my mother was horrified to see the Olympic track being unceremoniously dug up in order for the MCG to host a cricket match… this was almost sacrilegious. Always quick on her feet, she ran downstairs and grabbed two pieces of the chalked turf finishing line – one for herself, and one for  Sir William… 

… that piece of white chalk on Olympic turf had done its job, brought pride and achievement, rewarded hard work, stamina, and sheer guts. Its time in the spotlight under the glare of thousands of photographers’ flash bulbs over. Sad to be gone in physical terms but living on in the history of this country, in the minds and memories of all who saw it, and in film (early TV) and photography.

How lucky to see a tiny piece of that memorable event – even if stored in a chutney jar for 60 years!

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I tried to capture that faint white line.

After Donna read her story I remembered some memorabilia from previous Olympic Games that are probably quite rare in Australia.

The Moscow Olympics

In 1980, I worked for the Victorian Branch of the  Federated Miscellaneous Workers’ Union and one of the officials, Frank Brady was fundraising for a close friend going to the Olympic Games in Moscow.

However, Russia had invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and the USA and other countries decided to boycott the Olympic Games. The country was divided about attending and the angst and controversy of the time a direct contrast to the cute bear who was the mascot of the Games.

Frank gifted me the bear and badge.

It holds precious memories of my time in the union office and of Frank who died a few years later. There were many debates and discussions around Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan (ironically the USA also took that path years later), the Olympic boycott, the decisions of individual athletes to go or stay, and the spectacular opening and closing ceremonies. These set a high competitive benchmark for every Olympiad since and the effort to go one better.

As Alexander McCall Smith said, ‘we don’t forget…’ and keepsakes and objects help spark the memories!

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Misha, also known as Mishka designed by children’s book illustrator Victor Chizhikov

The governments of the United Kingdom, France, and Australia supported the boycott but left any final decision over participation to individual athletes and respective NOCs.

The International Olympics Federations protested that the pressures by the US and other supporting countries for the boycott was an inappropriate means to achieve a political end, and the victims of this action would be the athletes.

Needless to say, there have been plenty of politics at every Olympics since and the controversy over Moscow resulted with only eighty participating countries, the lowest number since 1956.

Yet, the Moscow Games have the distinction that more world records were set than by the fuller contingent attending the previous summer games in Montreal, 1976.

The Sydney Olympics

I have several photographs commemorating the 2000 Olympics held in Sydney, Australia, starting with the Olympic Torch Relay. Lots of community members were chosen to take part in mini relays on the lead up to the great day and my friend from the Union of Australian Women,  Amy Duncan ran in Mordialloc.

When the Olympic Torch came to Melbourne, I kept the girls off school and with hundreds of others we cheered the runners at Mentone. We had some morning tea and then caught a tram to spend the afternoon at a special exhibition about Anne Frank at the Holocaust Museum in Elsternwick.

The tram had to stop to let the runners go past, we hopped off and joined the throng of well-wishers. The crowds were so huge, and traffic jammed that we met up with more torch relay runners. It was a slow run because I think the authorities underestimated the thousands who would take to the streets to cheer.

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The girls met several runners (former and current athletes) and they both got to hold an Olympic Torch. Perhaps in a writing class of the future, they’ll write their story of that day.

For most people, the highlight of the 2000 Games was Cathy Freeman and although I would never call myself a sporty person, Cathy, and those Games encouraged me to be a couch potato for a few weeks, and join John and the girls watching the Games!

The Beijing Olympics

The final Olympic story triggered by Donna’s magnificent Mother’s history was of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Prior to China hosting the Olympic Games, I was working for Melbourne University Student  Union, and we hosted a delegation of Chinese university students from the same Beijing university that led the protests in 1989 later known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

The students were coming to Australia to learn about representative student unions, how to run student elections, and work with university administration.

We had many interesting discussions and I showed them photographs of my time in China in 1979 – long before any of them were born! We also talked about 1989 and what memories they or their parents had. They were optimistic for the democratization of their country’s institutions.

All of them had gifts to share and along with a lovely wall hanging and polished wooden coasters, they gave me an Olympic Games fan, and I requested their autographs.

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Please share whatever memories you have of Olympic Games – past or present!

 

 

Resisting The Fear of Terror, Trump and Tempestuous Times

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In a world of instant news, we seem to be inundated with horror, and as the well-known dictum suggests: Bad news travels fast.

A couple of days ago, I received an email with news I hadn’t yet heard. It was from my dear friend Tanja, who now lives in Italy.

Last night a crazy guy shot many persons in Munich. My children are all well. They live in the center of Munich. I feel very sad for this crazy world.’

I sighed with relief  while feeling tremendous sorrow and heartbreak for those who had suffered!

Since then, the number of dead and injured in Kabul has risen, there have been more incidents in Iraq, ongoing carnage in Syria, and fearful repercussions of what may or may not have been a well-organised coup in Turkey while the people still recover from suicide bomber attacks. And more shootings involving police and African-Americans in the USA.

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I’ve mentioned before how privileged I feel to have the world of my writing and teaching to keep me sane and grounded in reality. A reality that there is only a small percentage of human beings committing these acts of terror and violence, but we must all work towards a solution to stop people feeling angry and disenfranchised, or forcing their view of the world on others.

Irresponsible political leaders and celebrities like American Donald Trump, Britain’s Nigel Farage and Australia’s Pauline Hanson peddling the politics of fear, ignorance, lies, and hate in the West and multiple groups and leaders fighting for power in the Middle East – the place we are led to believe is the origin of current acts of terror – can’t be allowed to define who we are.

Limericks Against Loose Language

There’s a presidential hopeful called Trump
From Australia, he looks quite a chump
He speaks in platitudes
With aggressive attitudes
Yet, his popularity is not in a slump!

So many seem to admire Donald Trump
Because ‘political correctness’ he’ll dump
But dissecting his words
Reveals policies absurd
If he wins ‘stop the world’ let me jump!

In Oz, we have a female version of Trump
Pauline Hanson is back with a thump
Fear she’ll expand
’All Muslims banned’
But ask for the logic, and she’s gazumped

Pauline’s no stranger to misinformation
Founding the ironically named ‘One Nation’
She nurtures division
With xenophobic precision
Be welcome as long as you’re not Asian!

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Study History and be Informed

If you have lived over six decades, like me,  you’ll remember the prolonged bombings, murders, and plane hijacks by nationalist groups such as the IRA, PLO, Spanish ETA, not to mention others with perhaps a broader agenda like the Red Brigade, Baader-Meinhof , American Weathermen, the Front de libération du Québec and too many guerrilla groups in South America and the African continent  to list. Who can forget Pol Pot, the Tiger Tamils, extremist groups in India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Burma, the plethora of groups involved in the Vietnam War, China’s Cultural Revolution, the Sarin Gas Subway attack in Japan … and the list goes on

Google isn’t the only source of knowledge and shouldn’t be but it is a good start if you type in any of the above struggles, countries, or causes.

Turmoil and tempestuous times are not new but having instant access on our phone which we carry everywhere means we have difficulty escaping from whatever circulates on social media as well as mainstream news.

Bigger television sets with clearer satellite images and on the spot reporting beamed into our homes, every doctor, dentist or hospital waiting room, pub, shopping centre and anywhere else people gather, ensures 24-hour shock and horror with often limited context or facts. Creating and marketing fear second nature to some sections of the media.

May we… be part of the answer, and not part of the problem.

This quote, also from the Rev.  Peter Marshall  was on a plaque above our mantelpiece when I was growing up. My parents shared a lot of the values of Peter Marshall, which was not surprising because they were Scottish Presbyterians before coming to Australia and joining what became the Uniting Church.

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I was lucky to be brought up with what I consider good core values, particularly in regard to social justice and belief in equity and the priority of peace. My parents were Christians who acknowledged that others, as well as their own children, may not necessarily have the same views. They may not have celebrated our drift away from their religious practices, but they accepted it.

Dad spent his life studying and questioning the tenets of his Christian faith. He was a deep thinker and loved philosophical discussions.  I’ve inherited some of his books, including one about Comparative Religions, which he encouraged me to read when I was studying Eighteenth Century history in my final year of high school.

We listened to the Boyer Lectures on the ABC together and had great discussions on the wide-ranging  topics covered.  Dad read and listened to tapes by the Rev. William Barclay, who many considered preached heresy. He loved debating aspects of religion and church life and read and admired Paulo Freire. Sometimes discussions could be prolonged, passionate, even heated and sometimes ended with agreeing to disagree!

In today’s world, voices of religious fundamentalism of various persuasions and fanaticism want to dominate. We could do with more people like my father.  Dad enjoyed seeking and sharing knowledge, having a respectful debate, not only being tolerant but accepting different religious and spiritual beliefs.

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The world does seem crazy, so I focus on the wellbeing of family and friends, celebrate birthdays and achievements, share coffee catch-ups with past students and close friends, enjoy the seasonal changes of my garden.

I throw myself into the various volunteer events I enjoy. (Next weekend is Open House Melbourne.) I’m glad the discussions and laughter shared in writing classes are meaningful, life-affirming and a source of joy – and we all love the writing time.

peter marshall quote

 

My Five Memorable Experiences This Past Week To Keep Me Singing and Wondering:

  1. I receive a delightful and humbling thank you email plus a gorgeous gift from past student Trish when we meet for lunch. She had created the mini garden just for me and sent a lovely poem by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

present fro Trish

 

Journal Newsletter

2. I prepare a book for publication by a beautiful woman who has helped many people find peace in meditation and yoga. She wants to leave a legacy of her life’s journey, which is a triumph of survival against barriers, cancer, and other life events that would have defeated others. Julie Wentworth’s, A Life Shared will be as treasured as her first book, Love & Light.

3. I attend two consumer focus groups with people like myself determined to make our health system the best it can be.

(a) One to help the Cancer Council’s  Quit Campaign improve its approach and be more effective and advise on the language used on their website.

(b) One to improve quality and safety in our hospitals with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Quality and Safety Framework Consumer Focus Group at the Health Issues Centre.

4. I spend a Saturday afternoon with Karen Corbett one of the best theatre/drama teachers in the business learning to improve my play-writing skills to submit a monologue to Baggage Productions annual Madwomen’s Monologues. Shortlisted two years ago I will keep trying in the hope my work is performed.

5. Two long-standing writing buddies and dear friends help me workshop a novel started in 2008 (!), abandoned when I was diagnosed with cancer –  but now ready to be resurrected. I am so blessed having valued critics with amazing writing talent. When the three of us get together we have a lot of fun as well as work hard  workshopping our words.

Writing Class
Mairi Neil

A library of imagination
Pens fill blank pages
Words arranged and stacked
Released to the public
Knowledge laced with fantasy
A choice of genres
To receive a stamp of approval

I hope after reading this post people can count their blessings and perhaps create a list too! A great buffer against negativity.

 

Escapism Via Flash Fiction

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After class, today, chatting with one of my students who is a fairly new immigrant from Turkey, we shared how the sadness in the world saps our creativity.

Understandably, she is worried about her family and friends after the recent events in Turkey and with family and friends in the UK, USA, and Europe I too seem to be in a constant state of worry – as well as being concerned for my Turkish student and other Turkish friends!

It is too easy to tune into ABC24 and the plethora of social media news, too easy to become addicted or obsessed about hearing the latest updates, too easy to be stressed, too easy to focus on anything but writing!

I tend to be a worrier but also highly sensitive to other people’s woes – compassion a core family value, along with a sense of social responsibility and community.

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My writing can be therapy and escapism, as well as a way to try and make sense or understand the indefensible, irrational and the unfathomable aspects of human nature and behaviour. I don’t keep a journal but often scribble my feelings into notebooks or fashion a poem or short piece of prose.

Times of emotional trauma or physical upheaval make it difficult to concentrate and when local or global tragedies occur, focus on substantial creative projects wanes, or is lost completely.

Thank goodness for writing classes!

Regardless of how empty I feel, once I’m in the safe space of my writing classes with the lesson plan in hand I let my imagination loose for the 15-20 minutes of stream of consciousness writing that is the ‘splurge’.

Sitting beside my students, I can become a writer rather than the teacher.

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The skills of fiction and nonfiction are not mutually exclusive, and mastering or even flirting with one can have a transformative effect on the other.

Zachary Petit, Writer’s Digest

Today, we concentrated on the importance of opening lines. Not just because it is important to grab the reader’s attention but also as a way of jump-starting our imagination.

It never ceases to amaze me the variety and quality of the stories random splurges produce and today was no different.

A good opening line is a powerful thing: It can grab an editor’s attention, set the tone for the rest of the piece, and make sure readers stay through The End!

Jacob M. Appel

This is why it is called a HOOK – just like a fish at the end of the line, you want to keep your readers hanging in there!

Splurge – Try one of these story openings:

  • He’d always had the perfect golf grip. The one he used on the gun wasn’t bad, either.
  • Palm trees always reminded me of him/her. (You can substitute any other flora)
  • Parker was definitely not singing in the rain.
  • I think that after you lose your car keys three days in a row, you should just be able to stay home.
  • The devil always finds work for idle hands to do, according to Mr Smith our science teacher – and he should know.
  • My alter-ego came to life one summer in 1975. (Or another date!)
  • The scraping noise was Grandfather’s chair on the flagged tile floor.
  • ‘Who is it, Madeleine?’
  • The crushed carcass of the car outside the corner garage revealed a truth Constable Thomson didn’t want to face.

 

Night Terror
Mairi Neil (flash fiction of 750 words)

The scraping noise was Grandfather’s chair on the slate floor, but why is he in the kitchen now?

The clock in the hallway, ticked, whirred, and chimed the half-hour. Tim checked his Father’s fob watch on the bedside table: 3.30am.

How did Grandfather manage the stairs by himself – and why? Is Mum downstairs too? Tim held his breath, but no tell-tale cough announced his mother’s presence; no whistle of steam from the kettle on the range.

When Mum’s in the kitchen, there’s always the clink of china cups, although this is a strange hour for a tea party.

Another creak, low and sinister, followed by the scraping noise again.

Tim imagined the chair rocking back and forth in front of the wood-fired stove. The old man huddling forward, gnarled hands stretching towards the open oven door, willing the radiated heat to warm arthritic bones.

Mum must be there – who else stoked and lit the fire? Tim concentrated; listened for murmuring voices.

The morning ritual always the same; Grandfather and his crook legs and weak heart only make it downstairs by leaning on Mum’s arm and gripping the bannister.

Maybe they couldn’t sleep and Mum lit the fire to keep the old man company and now they’re absorbed in one of the story-telling sessions they seem to like so much. Always talking about the past. Tim often wished he had a time machine like the man in the book he borrowed from the library.

He burrowed deeper into warm bedclothes, his small face, a flat white stone in an inky river of shadows. His breath drifted in uneven puffs in the cold air and twitching his nose his eyes widened with remembering. If Grandfather is rocking in front of the fire he’d be smoking his pipe, a habit he said helped him count his blessings. But no pungent tobacco smoke wafted up the staircase to cloud the room.

An asthmatic cough from the room across the hall punctuated the night before fading into gentle snoring almost immediately.

And Mum is still asleep. Who is downstairs? A thief? Tim shuddered. Who could make an intruder leave?

So many homeless men living by the railway line. Men who cadged meals and money before stowing away on one of the frequent goods trains that crisscrossed the land. Desperate men with nothing to lose. Men fighting to survive bad economic times.

Has one broken in and settled by the fire? Tim’s eyelids flickered and he fought back tears. Troubled blue eyes stared at the dresser, found the photograph of his father, pale in the muted moonlight shining through threadbare curtains.

If only the mining accident hadn’t happened, Dad would make the intruder leave. Tim clenched his teeth.

He remembered the burly man at the door yesterday. His offer to chop wood for two shillings – the price of a flagon of sherry.

Mum confessed their poverty and offered a sandwich. The man’s hairy top lip twisted. ‘Only if there’s dessert,’ he said, menacing eyes staring too long at Mum’s chest before returning to her flushed face.

Tim sensed his Mum’s fear as she slammed the door, rammed the bolt across, pressed her shaking body against the entrance as if the oak panels needed help to keep the man out.

His ten-year-old hands fisted, but Grandfather’s restraining hand on his shoulder held him firm. He hated the old man for his whispered, ‘You’re too young, boy,’ but had a rush of pity when Grandfather added, ‘and I’m too old.’

Blood surged in Tim’s ears. He gripped the bedsheets, his racing heartbeat competing with the scraping and rumbling below. He must go downstairs and face the intruder, prove to Grandfather he was not too young, prove to Mum he could protect her.

The curtains billowed and a gust of even colder air swirled around the room. Tim froze. Perhaps it was a ghost downstairs. Dad or Grandmother visiting – they both had favoured the chair by the fire. The scraping noise accompanied by a rustling as if hands searched canisters.

An almighty crash followed the rattling of crockery. Tim cowered under the blankets until a shattering of glass and china was joined by grunting and snarling.

And his Mum spluttering, ‘Damn possums!’

Tim searched for his slippers and met his mother in the hallway as she recovered from a coughing fit.

They hurried downstairs. A tremulous smile playing on Tim’s lips as the stairs creaked and Grandfather’s chair scraped on the slate floor.

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It’s a helluva start, being able to recognize what makes you happy.

Lucille Ball

Writing makes me happy.

Why not choose a first line and write a story – escape from sadness and tragedy for a few moments with some flash fiction fun!

Anniversaries and Birthdays Come too Soon

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Anne Brown Courtney 1937

My mother would have been 95 years old on April 15th but she died in October 2009, six months after her 88th birthday. I often think of her – not just on her birthday – but this April, a milestone in more ways than one because it is the 75th anniversary of the Belfast Blitz, an experience Mum never forgot.

In December 2003, when I asked Mum to talk into a tape recorder and share stories about her life, it was obvious the despair and devastation of that night in World War Two had left traumatic memories.

In Easter 1941, Belfast was blitzed and like the incendiary bombs dropped that night, the damage Mum witnessed forever seared in her mind and heart.

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As mentioned in a previous post, I researched Korean poetry because I have a new Korean-Japanese student. I discovered a Korean form called Sijo, which has particular syllable rules and a three-line, or six-line, songlike structure.

NaPoWriMo prompts may be by the wayside, but I’ll still make attempts to write poems.

Belfast Blitz a Sijo by Mairi Neil

Lord Haw Haw, delivered his big Easter Eggs as promised
The bombs pounded; buildings collapsed, land mines exploded
Belfast aflame. That destructive April, the people sacrificed.

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Mum’s Memories:

I joined the army in October 1940 just after Dunkirk, but my eyes took bad. I developed iritis among other problems and the civilian doctor advised me to resign to get my eyes fixed. ‘If you want you can rejoin the ATS but don’t trust army doctors.’

He advised me to take my discharge and the day I received confirmation a rule was passed in parliament about conscripts. However, as a volunteer I was able to get out of the army on medical grounds.

I arrived back in Northern Ireland from Scotland on Good Friday in 1941. I went out to the farm with my brother, Tom and stayed with Uncle Arthur and Aunt Mary at Saintfield.

Everybody was warned to get out of Belfast because Lord Haw Haw had said Hitler was going to give Ulster their Easter eggs. Lord Haw Haw often came on the radio. He talked through his nose and had a distinctive drawl. ‘We’re going to give the people of Ulster their Easter eggs,’ he said.

Well, Belfast emptied – those who could get out. Some of them had to work Saturday. Good Friday wasn’t a holiday in Belfast or Scotland, only in England. But Glasgow and Belfast got Easter Tuesday, so we had Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday off. We were expecting the planes but they never came.

There had been a raid the week before.

The Luftwaffe launched its first attack on Belfast April 7th and 8th. They attacked the docks. That Dockside Raid was a shock. The government thought we were too far away for the Luftwaffe to reach. We’d had 22 air raid siren alerts – each one false – people were careless about the blackout curtains or going to bomb shelters.

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Even London didn’t think we’d be a target and had told Stormont to build air bases. We only had 200 air raid shelters for a population of 500,000. When more than 500 Luftwaffe bombers and escorts took off from northern France – heading for Clydeside and Greenock no one expected eight bombers to veer off to Belfast.

They dropped about 800 incendiary bombs on the dock area. That shook everyone up! Workers lived near the factories and docks, they were sitting ducks. Lots of homes were destroyed. Incendiary bombs set fire to large timber yards. Harland and Wolff dockyards were hit and the Rank Flour Mill. Thirteen people were killed and the Germans discovered how weak our defences were.

However, that Easter weekend we thought we were okay. Everybody returned Tuesday night to start work on Wednesday morning and the beggars came around 11 o’clock Tuesday night.

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It was one of the longest raids of the war. They started about 10.30pm, actually. The first bomb fell before the sirens went and got the main water line in Royal Avenue coming from the reservoir and shortly after 2.00am they got the other water line so there was no water.

About 150 to 160 Luftwaffe bombers dropped over 200 tons of explosives. They targeted the city’s waterworks. At first we thought that the reflection off the reservoir had fooled the pilots into thinking that they were near the docks. But they were no fools. The waterworks were deliberately hit.

The water pressure was so low fire crews found that their hoses were of little use. It was an inferno. It was fire that damaged Belfast – fire did most of the damage.

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It was after 6.00am before the all clear sounded. In the morning when I first looked out Belfast seemed to be surrounded by fire, there were still blazes burning.

Later people said Dublin had warned the politicians the bombers were on their way. Dublin wasn’t in the war but they wouldn’t do anything against us. I don’t know what we would have done without them because things would have been a darn sight worst.

They could see the fires in Dublin and were asked to help and said we’re sending you up fire engines and tanks of water. They sent up every available fire crew about 70 men and 13 engines and they fought the fires for 3 days without rest. They were relieved by fire crews from the Clyde and Liverpool.

I don’t know what we would have done without those volunteers.

“In the past, and probably in the present, too, a number of them did not see eye to eye with us politically, but they are our people–we are one and the same people–and their sorrows in the present instance are also our sorrows; and I want to say to them that any help we can give to them in the present time we will give to them whole-heartedly, believing that were the circumstances reversed they would also give us their help whole-heartedly …”
Eamon De Valera President of Ireland after the Belfast Blitz.

We were four houses down from the top of our street where a landmine landed. A shop stood alone with little damage but there was nobody in there. Nearby two houses took a direct hit.

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One of the houses was empty but in the middle house two daughters and their mother were killed. The father was a guard in the gaol down the road and the brother was in a granary sheltering with the boys brigade so they were saved. The mother had been across the road visiting but when the siren sounded she saw a tiny light through a crack in the blackout curtains and knew that her daughters were home.

Oh, the girls are home I better be with them.’ She rushed out as a landmine fell and the house was demolished. Her body was discovered atop a lamp post and the girls crushed and killed inside their home.

Belfast-blitz

My stepmother went to Comber to her folk and my uncle pleaded with us to stay with them at the farm until Wednesday morning but Tom said, ‘Oh no, my mammy said we had to come home because she was coming home.’

Well, we got home about half past eight or nine o’clock but she never arrived until nearly half past ten. We had to sit on the doorstep because she wouldn’t give us key.

We had just got into bed and the sirens went so of course it was panic stations. We made our way down the stairs, but before we got down they dropped the landmine at the top of the street.

Our two front and back doors blew in and some of the windows shattered although they weren’t too bad because we had sticky tape on them. We had a Yale lock, plus a big ordinary lock on the door and we had a bar across, yet the door was blown in.

We got down below the stairs and huddled together. We never had a back garden and the nearest air raid shelter no one would go in because it was stinking, dogs peed in it and everything else. It wasn’t kept in good repair at all.

The bombing went on until half past six in the morning.

We always sheltered under the stairs. It was a funny thing although houses were bombed it worked out under the stairs was the safest place to be, and many people survived.

I’ll never forget when I came out of the house and looked out. We lived at a bit of a height and the city seemed to be ringed by fire.

 

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There were unexploded bombs all over the place and this little lad came down the street – he was eleven or twelve years old – and he had some of his belongings over his shoulder wrapped in a sheet that had once been white, but was now dirty grey.

He held a canary in its cage. ‘Were are you from son,’ I said.

Oh up from the Bally streets.

These streets were at the top of the Old Park Road. Four or five streets: Ballyclare, Ballymoney, Ballywalton…Ballymena. They ran to the Clifton Park Road.

Those streets bombed because the Germans were actually aiming for Aldergrove Airfield and the RAF, which was on the other side of the hill called Devil’s Mountain. The RAF boys told us it was easy to confuse from the air because the way the tram lines ran they look like runways and the houses looked like huts.

On one side of the Cliftonville Road was the football ground and the other was the cricket ground so the Germans thought they were bombing the airport but they were on the wrong side of the hill.

The wee boy said, ‘Missus, there’s hardly a house left standing, the Bally streets are flattened.’

‘Oh my goodness,’ I said.

‘I don’t know where my parents are,’ the wee boy cried, ‘they were at the Crumlin Road pictures and they haven’t come back yet.’

Where are you going?

I’m making for my aunt’s down the Shore Road, York Street East.’

I often wondered how he got on because that street was badly damaged. I wonder what happened to that wee boy and so many others like him. It was a terrible night. Around 56,000 homes damaged or destroyed. Nearly 1,000 people were killed and 1,500 injured. 400 of those were seriously and 100,000 homeless.

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War is ugly. I would hate to see another world war. Australia should never have been in Vietnam and should keep out of other countries. Too many innocent civilians suffer.

Two hospitals were hit that night in Belfast, so bodies were lain out in St. George’s Market to be identified. Some were never identified and were buried in mass graves.

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Ronnie Finnegan’s father was the groom at Wilton’s Funeral Parlour and my friends Mrs Calvert said she would never forget to her dying day the squeals of the horses.

The hay took a direct hit and they only managed to rescue a couple of the horses because there was no water to fight the fire. They were the most beautiful horses you could ever see.

They were Belgian and kept in beautiful condition. They shone at funerals, coats gleaming. Ronnie said his father never really got over the loss of the horses because they were like his children.

Aunt Martha ran all the way, through streets of unexploded bombs, from Armagh Road to Albertville Drive to plead with us. ‘Please get out to the farm.

She then went on up to Woodville Road to ask Aunt Minnie to leave. She’d run all that way and was so insistent, we packed to go. Tom had a canary and asked what to do with it.

Take it with us,’ I said. We were about ready to leave when the canary died – delayed shock.

Tom was breaking his heart over the bird when my stepmother grabbed it and flushed it down the toilet. She was like that – a heartless woman.

Of course, there was little public transport because lots of the road had been damaged. We walked to a shortcut we knew to see if there were any buses. Passing Mr and Mrs Scott’s place we noticed their boys had come in from their dad’s farm, which was just above our family farm.

The boys had come in to get Mrs Scott because she was a widow. Bob Scott was dead and they had come to evacuate their mother who said, ‘I’m sorry we can’t take you because there’s no room in the car.’

We understood but asked if they could take our bags. ‘Oh aye, we can squeeze them in the boot.’

What a relief to get rid of the luggage because as we walked downhill everywhere was thronging. The smell of burning flesh, clothes, furniture – everything – clung to our nostrils. We managed to get a bus out to the farm and stayed there for most of the war.

I never went back to Belfast because I got a job in Saintfield and worked there until my eyes took really bad and I had to see a specialist who saved my sight.

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Without Mum, another Sijo by Mairi Neil

Without Mum, the world is sadder
Without Mum, wisdom is diminished
Without Mum, hearts are crushed
Without Mum, life is less appealing
A mother’s love potent and powerful
My mother’s love not broken by death

 

 

Let There be Light and Enjoy The Illuminations

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I read for emotional engagement – a resonance in my heart as well as mind – and a love of story. Often I don’t finish a book, or take too long  reading  because it’s a struggle to engage with either the characters, plot, themes or the use of language.

However, a poorly edited book will be finished if the story is powerful or the characters grab me. Cliched I know, but a book must leave something with me to think about long after it’s been returned to its owner, library, put back on my shelf, or passed to a friend.

I have no interest in writing about books I don’t like so can never claim to be an objective book reviewer – I’ll leave that to experts on other sites like writer and friend, Lisa Hill.

I’m attracted to writers who can teach me something about  writing, and Andrew O’Hagan is one of my favourite authors. His use of words crafted into delightful and poignant metaphors and similes; minimal but evocative descriptions and always stories and characters with layers of meaning. He deftly structures his novels to lead to surprising revelations and links that have you nodding your head in amazement because of an ‘ah, ah’ moment of understanding.

I’ll be unashamedly partisan, O’Hagan’s lyrical prose speaks to me in more ways than one because he’s Scottish and many of his beautiful passages capture the Scotland and the people I grew up with and know so well. Even although it’s been many years since I lived full-time in Scotland, I can picture places he describes and hear beloved voices. The memories evoked pure nostalgic indulgence.

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I haven’t read all his offerings but first came across his writing in The Missing, a non-fiction book that had a profound impact. I might review this another time because like his fictional works I’ve read, Our Fathers, Be Near Me, and Personality and now this latest offering The Illuminations, O’Hagan tackles relevant social issues and newsworthy events and weaves them into his characters’ lives. He researches and champions important issues affecting the human condition, makes us think and generates empathy for people and situations we may otherwise ignore.

If you become captivated like me, you’ll seek out his other books – I tend to do that with authors. I remember Mrs Saffin, the librarian at Croydon High School in 1965 trying to break me of the habit of working my way through the shelves by reading all the books of a particular author before moving on to a new writer. (She had limited success.)

On reflection, because I always wanted to be a writer, I don’t think it was a bad idea on my part. When I found an author I liked, I was probably subconsciously studying and learning  their craft and how/why they earned my loyalty!

Thanks to a Christmas book voucher I bought The Illuminations at one of my favourite Melbourne bookshops The Hill of Content . A 40 minute train ride worth making. It’s an oasis of intellectual delight where I often discover books you may not pick up elsewhere and the customer service is second to none.

Andrew O’Hagan’s novel The Illuminations is as the blurb suggests ‘a beautiful, deeply charged story, showing that no matter how we look at it, there is no such thing as an ordinary life.

The novel’s chapters alternate between family events in Scotland and Captain Luke Campbell’s experiences in Afghanistan. Luke’s regiment, the Royal Western Fusiliers carry out the decisions of the powers that be who now believe, ‘creating electricity and irrigating the warlords’ poppy fields was a better idea than blasting the population from its caves.

However, this policy unravels along with the mind of Luke’s commanding officer and mentor, Major Scullion, whose ‘friendship used to be like a winter coat to Luke.’

When Luke examined his face he saw the eyes of a little counter-assassin from Westmeath. They were fogged with humanitarianism and strict orders, but they were still the eyes of a man who knew what to do in a dark alleyway.

In Scotland, we are in the world of Luke’s Canadian-born grandmother, Anne Quirk, once a well-known photographer. Anne lives in a sheltered housing complex in Lochranza Court, Saltcoats on Scotland’s west coast, but her mind is unravelling with the onset of dementia. She faces the loss of independence because ‘any resident incapable of working a kettle would have to be moved to a nursing home.’

Fortunately, for Anne, her next-door neighbour, Maureen has a fascination and fondness for the ‘quirky’ resident. ‘Maureen considered herself the warden’s deputy. It wasn’t a real job or anything like that but she could help the older ones with their laundry. She watered the plants and went for the milk, tasks that gave her a feeling of usefulness she had missed.’

Retirement complexes, small towns and villages, streets full of longterm residents all have, indeed need, their Maureens, who while coming to grips with the present, mourn the past when they looked after children.

And one by one they left the house with their LPs and their T-shirts. That’s what happens, Maureen thought, That’s how it is, You kill yourself looking after them and then they get up and leave you. She never imagined she’d end up in a place like Lochranza Court, but it had been six years and she was used to it.’

The novel is really about Anne whose relationship with her daughter, Alice is strained. Maureen observes there ‘was clearly a part of Anne’s life that was off limits or stuck in the past, but the dementia was bringing it out.’ (This ‘illuminating’ of the past is the crux of the novel.) Maureen feels sorry for Alice and keeps her in the loop regarding her mother. She also writes to Luke on Anne’s behalf and keeps that relationship vibrant.

We learn of Harry, Luke’s grandfather, a war hero in Anne’s eyes, and of Luke’s father Sean, another soldier, also a member of the Western Fusiliers, who was killed in Northern Ireland.  Anne’s dementia and occasional episodes of lucidity hint at unresolved traumas from the past and conflicting opinions about the present and future.

“…in “The Illuminations,” the Scottish novelist and critic Andrew O’Hagan has created a story that is both a howl against the war in Afghanistan and the societies that have blindly abetted it, and a multilayered, deeply felt tale of family, loss, memory, art, loyalty, secrecy and forgiveness.”

Dani Shapiro, NewYork Times.

At the beginning of the book, O’Hagan thanks Abdul Aziz Froutan and colleagues in Afghanistan, as well as members of the Royal Irish regiment for answering questions. And in peculiar serendipity as I was reading the novel the ABC was broadcasting the documentary series Afghanistan Inside Australia’s War featuring the same period as the novel.

In their own words and their own extraordinary, never-before-seen helmet-cam battle footage, Australia’s fighting men and women lay bare their hearts in an epic series – not just how they waged a war, but why and to what end.

O’Hagan did his research and it shows with his depiction of life in Afghanistan. He reveals the importance of  violent Xbox games and heavy metal music to modern soldiers, the amount of pills popped and marijuana smoked, the physical, emotional and mental price paid abroad and at home. The horror of the fighting fascinating, but stomach-churning reading. No wonder there is a prevalence of post traumatic stress syndrome in returning soldiers.

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Sitting on the wall, he smoked a cigarette, watched the water. It was a loss of spirit that had occurred in him… He later wished he could capture the peace he had known over those hours on the seawall as he looked into the the black distance, the lighthouse on the Holy Isle beating out a message just for him. The mountains of Arran he felt he had seen in another time, a recent one, but there was no gunfire or flares, no broken sleep, no enemy below, just the mountains themselves, the steady return of the fishing boats and the light that came with the morning.

After a mission goes horribly wrong, Luke leaves the army and in his quest to try and make sense of life he takes his grandmother on a road trip to Blackpool to see the famous Illuminations hoping to shed some light on the part of her life she has kept secret. In his reminiscing of growing up with a special relationship with this grandmother he reflects, ‘There was endless chat about how life used to be, with details missing.’

In the packing up of Anne’s life for the trip to Blackpool and the inevitable move to a nursing home when they return, Luke discovers letters and photographs which in Anne’s lucid moments she can explain. He begins to appreciate how talented she was as a photographer and wants to understand why she gave it all up.

In the observations and discussions about photography, the novelist has again done his homework. Another thank you at the beginning of the book is

...to Yaddo, and to Mary O’Connor and the keepers of the Joseph Mulholland Archive at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, where he studied the papers of the photographer Margaret Watkins. 

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Serendipity struck again – on March 13th my father would be 94 years old if alive. He died of dementia in 2005. He was an amateur photographer and although many of his photographs are of family there are others where I wonder what motivated him to take the picture? What did his artist eye see? What essence was he trying to capture?

And here in this novel we learn so much about Anne Quirk through the discussion of photography and photographs despite her dementia. I remember visiting with my dad and having conversations about the past. But did we talk about what happened? what never happened? what he wished had happened?

Dad manufactured stories to protect himself from past traumas and it seems O’Hagan’s Anne Quirk does the same. ‘You don’t see the connections in your life until it’s too late to disentangle them.’

This novel stirred many connections in my life, even the chapters set in Blackpool a place I visited in 1984 with my late husband just as they were setting up the illuminations. The B&Bs, the dance halls, the promenade, the pubs, the  grey sea – all wonderfully captured by O’Hagan.

Memory resides in the simplest things but to remember is a complex and complicated task. Are we remembering reality or an imaginary world? Is a photograph an accurate memory? What did the lens not see? Are photographs worth a thousand words?

Towards the end of the novel Luke discovers how good a photographer his grandmother was when he unearths a series of rare private photographs of The Beatles 1962:

‘Luke had to stand up, astonished at the scale and the mystery of what she’d done…For all her mistakes and her bad luck, she had managed this…’

And Andrew O’Hagan has managed to create believable characters and take us into their world to make us care what happens to them. Along the way his writer’s toolbox produced some wonderful descriptions and observations. You’l look at the night sky and the variations of light differently after reading The Illuminations.

I’ll give Andrew the last word from his essay explaining the inspiration for Anne Quirk:

My search … was also a search for the women I had grown up with on the west coast of Scotland. … I realised the book was a tribute to the hidden creativity of those women. I was always drawn to them as a child, and their sense of themselves, their pain and their Glasgow houses, were a kind of haunting thing for me. I was always aware of a certain amount of thwarted ambition on their parts, and by the sense of duty that clung to their gingham “pinnies”, their tabard overalls. As a novelist you come to know that people can be metaphors of one another. My fictional elderly lady has a grandson who is a captain in the British army fighting in Afghanistan. She is interested in reality, as every photographer is, but her own story, and the masking of her talent, play a part in explaining the daily news coming from the battlefront… One’s job as a writer is sometimes to find new proteins for the ideas that matter to you, and the story of this forgotten photographer locked on to my family history in a way that gave the novel the building blocks of life.

What more can I say – read and enjoy – or let me know what you don’t like about it!

An Encounter Unexpected, Unexplained, Unforgettable

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A video of a naked toddler running on the highway in America in the middle of the night is going viral on the Internet. The toddler’s run captured by the police car’s dash cam. That blurry image of a lost toddler triggers a buried memory from 1979 Darwin…

After an evening with friends, a workmate Ray offered to drive me back to the hostel where I was staying. Although a hot October night, the hovering storm clouds commonplace. Dark bruises hiding or foretelling sorrow?

My first week in the Top End of Australia marked with high humidity and tropical rainstorms. The start of the monsoon season—or as the locals proclaim, the suicide season. A time when temperaments become as mercurial as the weather. Anyone who can, escapes to more settled climes down south.

Work had sent me north. ‘Not the best time to be seconded from interstate, said Ray, ‘but if you survive you won’t want to leave. The Territory is full of surprises.’ He grinned. “I was sent up here for a week, five years ago.’

Along with intermittent traffic, Ray’s car sped citywards in racing mode. The clock on the dashboard glowed 11.50pm. The taste of wine consumed at dinner lingered on my tongue;  an alcoholic flush warmed neck and cheeks. I wound down the car window. Two delivery lorries roared past, the blast of air pushing my head back. Hair fluttered and skin cooled.

‘No speed limits here?’ I joked, hoping Ray would slow down, the car’s motion exacerbating a wave of rising nausea. Heat fatigue, alcohol, and a big helping of too–sweet Pavlova pressured my bloated stomach.

I don’t travel well in a car at the best of times having never held a driving licence, but in the moonlight, the six lane concrete highway became a huge swirling silver sea. Each bumpy ridge jolting like a cattle prod.

I jerked upright.’ Stop Ray! That was a child!’ The roaring wind distorted my voice.

‘What?’ Ray eased his foot from the accelerator, ‘Where?’

‘I’m sure that was a naked child by the side of the road. Stop so we can check.’

Silence.

Ray kept driving. Perhaps he thought I was drunk and hallucinating, or maybe it was just typical behaviour from someone whose mantra I suspected was don’t get involved.

I swivelled my head. In the distance, a little figure flitted across the road behind us—a toddler, perhaps three years old. Too young to be deliberately playing chicken with night traffic. ‘Please stop the car. Turn around NOW.’

Fair hair and pale skin glistened in the moonlight.

Miracle of miracles we were the only car on the highway at the time.

A subliminal flash of a bloodied lump of flesh splattered on the grill of a truck, or lying in the gravel as roadkill set me trembling. Ray obeyed the urgency of my voice and slowed almost to a crawl looking for a turnoff while muttering, ‘It really is none of our business.’

‘See, there he is,’ I pointed. ‘Hiding behind that pink frangipani. Stop and I’ll grab him.’

The child was slippery. Perspiration beaded his thin body. Grimy rivulets pooled around neck and groin. His face glowed red from the exertion of running across the highway who knows how many times. I managed to grab him before he launched himself off the kerb again. He giggled and wriggled as if being chased off the highway a regular past time.

A truck growled as it thundered past. Fear coiled in my stomach as I clung to the squirming mass of flesh. ‘What’s your name, son?’ More giggles and grunts. I sniffed at a profusion of purple wisteria dangling over a fence. Sweet relief from the boy’s stale sweat.

‘What’s your name, and where do you live? Where’s mummy and daddy?’ He struggled like a terrified cat.

I stared into the blackness, gradually houses rose from the shadows of shrubbery. Ray, a bemused onlooker to our wrestling match. ‘Let’s go for a walk down some streets and perhaps he’ll point out his home,’ he said.

Once, we were far enough away from the highway, I let Little Eel slide to the ground but still gripped his hand, cajoling him along the street, ‘Is this where you live? Point to mummy and daddy’s house.’

The boy’s reluctance to walk calmly and the lack of light and life from any of the houses exasperating. ‘We need to take him to a police station,’ said Ray, ‘let’s go back to the car.’

I hid my disappointment and picked up the squirming toddler. ‘I’m sure he’s escaped from one of these houses and his parents will be frantic when they discover he’s gone.’

The scorcher of a day produced a warm claustrophobic evening. I had hoped to find an open door or swinging gate to investigate. Most people would have left windows and doors ajar, allowing the night air to circulate, relying on fly screens to keep the mosquitoes and flying cockroaches out. A flywire door easy for this sturdy little chap to negotiate. Tall for his age, babyhood only evident when you were close; he seemed old beyond his years.

When we reached Ray’s car, I spied a service station over the highway–the bright lights probably the attraction for Little Eel.

‘Ray, let’s go over to the servo. They may recognise this little boy. We can ring the police, if there’s no joy.’

We stood beneath the streetlight. Ray stared closely at little Eel as if seeing him for the first time. His nose twitched at the toddler’s pong. He shook his head and grimaced at the glistening bundle with muck embedded in every crevice. Little Eel’s palms left marks on my blouse, and the soles of his feet, caked in grime accumulated over time and not just from today’s roaming, streaked my skirt. Ray’s brown eyes flickered towards the interior of his car, fluffy, sheepskin seat covers glowed white.

‘The servo it is,’ he said, ‘let’s go,’ and with a lull in the traffic, started to walk across the highway.

Little Eel looked even more neglected in the glare of neon lights with sweaty hair plastered and encrusted to his scalp. The man on duty at the service station tutted in disgust.

‘I don’t know the little fella’s name, but his parents come in here all the time when they run out of smokes. Don’t know where they live, except wherever it is they’ll be stoned out of their minds. The kid’s feral, brings himself up.’

‘I thought he lived close, ‘ I said. ‘We found him running across the highway. Lucky he’s not been hit.’

The attendant rolled his eyes, a flush of anger staining his face. His gritted teeth stretched thin lips into a murderous scowl.

Bored with our chatter Little Eel struggled to get down, ’keem, keem…,’ he whined, hands flailing. Surprised to hear words instead of the persistent irritating giggle, I nearly dropped him.

His whiney words clicked. ‘He wants ice-cream.’

A paroxysm of excitement shook his little body as the boy slid to the tiled floor. Although a relief to aching arms, I held firmly to his hand.

‘Can you ring the police for us.’ Ray asked the attendant, and glancing at me, ‘I’ll buy the ice-cream.’ The man gave Little Eel an icy-pole before ringing the police. I smiled as Ray redeemed himself.

‘They’ll be 10-15 minutes coming from town.’

Ray and the service station attendant commiserated about the levels of drug use and abuse in a growing Darwin flooded by people seeking work in the uranium mines or returning after the devastation of Cyclone Tracy. Christmas Day 1974 burned into the psyche of Territorians with thousands still struggling to come to terms with its aftermath.

I basked in the coolness of air-conditioned comfort and limited Little Eel’s exploration of the crowded shelves of the service station, and the sticky trail of dripped vanilla icy pole.

The toddler polished off the treat quicker than a parched lizard. Fifteen minutes stretched interminably. We all sighed with relief when the police jeep arrived and a male and female officer alighted to record our details, and a description of Little Eel’s capers. They knew him and his address, pronouncing the same opinion of his parents and home life as the servo attendant.

Ray hovered at the door like a runner on blocks as I relinquished Little Eel. I blamed hormones for the tears burning the back of my eyes as  the tiny hand left mine.

I watched the police officers wrap him in a towel provided by the attendant and pass him like a parcel from one officer to the other into the patrol car. The female officer adjusted the seatbelt firmly around the toddler’s frame with a, ‘Keep your sticky hands off the buckle!’

My last sight of Little Eel, a grinning face and grimy fingers wiping a farewell of sorts across the car window.

‘He’ll be all right,’ said Ray, ‘kids are resilient.’

‘So speaks a middle-aged bachelor,’ I snapped.

Ray shrugged as he unlocked the car doors. ‘My sister Sally is a widow with six children, I help out with money, babysit, and have the kids for holidays to give her a break.’

The night air chilled. I wished for a large hole to appear so I could slide into it as easily as Little Eel slipped away from me. A concoction of fragrant frangipani and enticing erysimum wafting in the breeze couldn’t remove the toddler’s smell from my clothes. I sunk into the car seat, surrendering to weariness and sorrow.

The journey home completed in embarrassed silence as evidence of the building boom flashed past. Damaged houses derelict since the cyclone, sat alongside empty blocks and new houses, rows of rotten teeth, cavities and shiny new fillings.

I didn’t have a solution or a magic wand to ensure Little Eel’s future. I prayed Ray was right and the authorities would protect the boy, but perhaps not…

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That night I decided not to accept the transfer to Darwin. It was a strange frontier town compared to Melbourne, the climate too hot and the encounter with Little Eel left me unsettled and sad.

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Outside a liminal glow spreads from an almost full moon and I wonder what happened to the child caught in the police video? How many Little Eels have suffered over the last thirty-seven years? Continue to suffer? How many more will suffer in the future?

If I had stayed in Darwin, could I have made a difference to the lives of families like Little Eel’s? What am I doing now to make a difference?

Pastor Peter Marshall said, ‘Small deeds done are better than great deeds planned.’

Some decisions are questionable and some questions unanswerable. There is no going back, but we can learn from experience.

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Revisiting 1968 through a Playwright’s Eyes

The purpose of a writer is to keep civilisation from destroying itself.

Albert Camus

Yesterday, I attended The Script Club, the final meeting for the year – our purpose, under the guidance of John McCallum (author, academic, theatre reviewer/critic) to examine classic plays by Australian playwrights with the view of reawakening interest to restage them.

We examined three plays:  Brumby Innes, by Katharine Susannah Prichard,  A Stretch Of The Imagination by Jack Hibberd and yesterday’s Chicago Chicago by John Romeril.

The attendance at the events has been beneficial to me as a writer, historian and teacher of creative writing. John’s vast knowledge of Australian plays awe-inspiring because of his research, plus he speaks from personal experience with many iconic names in Australian theatre. His passion for the stage revealed when he shares knowledge that’s a boon to the eclectic group in The Script Club: writers, actors, producers, set designers, students,  play enthusiasts and employees in the art industry.

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John was genuinely interested in hearing a range of opinions and ideas about the plays he’d chosen to discuss, their relevance to a modern audience and how they could be revived to give the maximum satisfaction to an audience.

Everyone agreed that Romeril’s play, Chicago Chicago was the most difficult play to categorise so far and as usual there were those who disliked it and others who preferred it to the previous plays. The life experience, prejudices,  preferences, reactions and opinions of the participants are always valuable in a roundtable discussion.

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Chicago Chicago placed in the One Act genre with its 20 scenes in two parts, described as “a surreal attack on political exploration set against the 1968 Chicago Democrat Convention.” First produced in Melbourne 1970 by the Australian Performing Group, the play was written in 1969. This group grew out of the Pram Factory, a place that nurtured “many gifted writers and actors, directors of film, theatre and TV, artists, musicians and singers, circus performers, arts administrators and community artists.

John asked those of us at The Script Club  for our initial reaction:

An unusual play… very different… it would be interesting to stage but not yet there for understanding the story… liked it, my favourite so far… each scene grew out of the previous like baboushka dolls… loved the cardboard cut-out characters of George & Lillian, they’re used in a way to explain the play… they were the only ones that made sense… gave me a perspective on USA… rapid fire change of scenes kept me engaged… I couldn’t get an emotional connection… depressing view of humanity… a savage attack laying bare the worst side of human nature… nihilistic… an amazing play for its time… need to read it more than once to understand it all… intriguing… some parts confusing, not sure what he meant…

John realised that for younger audiences (and many attendees of The Script Club), the play had to be put into historical context for its full brilliance (or otherwise) to be appreciated. 1968 was astounding for the USA and the rest of the world. Billed as the year that changed history:

1968…  a year of seismic social and political change across the globe. From the burgeoning anti-Vietnam war and civil rights movements in the United States, protests and revolutions in Europe and the first comprehensive coverage of war and resultant famine in Africa. The world would never be the same again.

The Guardian (here a photograph is worth a 1000 words)

Horrific scenes from Vietnam on every newspaper front page and beamed nightly into our lounge rooms. Vietnam the first televised war interspersed with advertisements, of course! Civil Rights marchers in America clashed with National Guardsmen, the tanks rolled down the streets of Memphis. The assassination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy stunned the world. Workers and students rioted in Paris. The Biafran-Nigerian War and mass starvation in Biafra also played out on our TVs. Russian tanks invaded Prague, Czechoslovakia. Two African American Olympians gave the black power salute after winning gold at the Mexican Olympics. All this counterbalanced by the Californian ‘summer of love’ – the rise of the hippies and yippies.

Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin released in 1964, re-released by Burl Ives in 1968 and sung by others. The constant airplay showed its relevance to the youth of the day, along with Barry McGuire’s, Eve of Destruction. 

The 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention is the setting for Chicago Chicago.  LBJ (President Johnston) announced he would not recontest the presidency and Eugene McCarthy, and Hubert Humphrey fought for Democrat preselection. America’s continued involvement in the Vietnam War a major issue dividing the two candidates.

Thousands of protesters from various groups hoped to influence the delegates and get their countercultural views heard. Met by thousands of police ordered on duty by Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley; the demonstrators chanted ‘the whole world is watching’ as street battles raged for eight days.

This photograph from a blog Culture Through Politics. Propaganda. Art.

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All of this background detail is necessary to make sense of some of the references in the play and certainly to get the full impact of the setting of some of the scenes.

Chicago Chicago one of several Australian plays produced in the 60s treating Australian involvement in Vietnam allegorically, as a symbol of military invasion and destruction of power operating for its own preservation. Romeril’s play surveyed the American context of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago and became significant by raising consciousness around Australia’s participation in Vietnam. It evoked the uncertainty and confusion of that era.

Romeril had this to say about his work in a Double Dialogues Conference with John McCallum, the full transcript available online.

“drama exists in a state of contention – the kind of contention…that is the tension between naturalism, on the one hand, and a much more formalised or stylised drive to theatre. That’s always fascinated me and it always, I think, gives theatre its density of attack.

He quotes the influence of Japanese playwright Monzaemon Chikamatsu, who wrote more than a 100 plays between 1683 and the 1720s.

“He said the theatre is neither fully fanciful nor yet wholly realistic but it lives in the gap between the two, in the slender margin between the real and the unreal. So the audience will still be flashing between something that is luminescently beautiful, so beautiful, it can’t be the real and behaviour that is so well observed that it does have a naturalistic aura, even though it is being produced by actors, night after night after night. And so that tension is something that audiences are constantly going through. And a script ought to, and the players ought to, be aspiring to put an audience in that state and they themselves should be operating in that state. It’s why the theatre can achieve or get close to a real existentiality. It can matter and that’s when it hits us and works on us.”

John Romeril has been a prolific writer, a dramaturge and a constant supporter of theatre practice of all types and all levels throughout Australia for many, many years. If, like Romeril, we believe theatre to be part of life, keeping up with all political and social events, perhaps Chicago Chicago can be set in a different era, perhaps updated. Everyone agreed that so many of the points/issues/themes of the script still relevant today.

History as art and entertainment serves a real purpose, on aesthetic grounds but also on the level of human understanding. Stories well done are stories that reveal how people and societies have actually functioned, and they prompt thoughts about the human experience in other times and places.

History also provides a terrain for moral contemplation. Studying the stories of individuals and situations in the past allows a student of history to test his or her own moral sense, to hone it against some of the real complexities individuals have faced in difficult settings. People who have weathered adversity not just in some work of fiction, but in real, historical circumstances can provide inspiration.

And of course nations use identity history as well—and sometimes abuse it. Histories that tell the national story, emphasizing distinctive features of the national experience, are meant to drive home an understanding of national values and a commitment to national loyalty.

Peter N. Stearns, American Historical Association

Romeril’s cutting edge play incorporates the technology of 1968: overhead projector, slides, public address system for voiceovers, tape recordings. It may be interesting to use old technology – a media library would have images from the 60s, nostalgia is “in”. Lighting always critical to set the mood and create the changes necessary for the stage to become: hotel room, hospital ward, cell, home, party at the convention… street scenes, Game Show, park…

Or perhaps use the full force of new technology – sound vital for a sense of place. Environmental sounds (old or new) will evoke setting and mood. Would we show the capacity modern technology has for surveillance nowadays by streaming live feed video on stage? Stick with the cardboard cut-outs or have puppets? Or just use screen projections?

Does the dialogue between The Psychiatrist and The Man in one scene have to change to reflect modern approaches to mental health? Do some of the “speeches” have to be shortened? They are long but insightful.

The play has opportunities for comedy (the cliched speeches of the President) as well as tragedy (the vicious beating of the man giving away his wealth).

We discussed so many aspects of the play: the meaning of certain scenes, what we thought Romeril intended, how an audience may interpret the play. Although he did say in his playwright’s note:

The present version, Chicago, Chicago, differs from the past two quite substantially, so much so that the old title seemed inappropriate. The changes have all been made to make it less obscure and more entertaining. The play is still a protest against the American way of life, but is now, I trust, more effective for being more obvious and more theatrical.

I have not gone to any great lengths to ‘over-direct’ the script. I leave that to the reader and to those people interested in performing the play. However, it would be wise to suggest that despite the naturalism of some of the dialogue, the play will succeed only with a good deal of stylized acting. Voices should be experimented with, as should styles of physical action. The set, indeed the total effect should be spare and quite formal. The slides I regard simply as a device for informing the audience and for clarifying the stage action.

At first glance the large number of characters might seem formidable. However it is technically possible for eight people to stage the play, and the list of characters has been broken down accordingly.

One thing all of us at The Script Club yesterday had in common (apart from facilitator John McCallum) was confessing we would never have read Chicago Chicago if not part of such a great activity. The new world and ideas and detailed discussion enjoyable and worthwhile leaving plenty of food for thought. (And the refreshments provided by The Script Club always yummy!)

John laughed at how intense and excited our discussions became and suggested we’d all go home and write our version of the play – and maybe some of us will! I know most of us hope The Script Club will continue in 2016, and we’ll be reminded to enrol.

The last word is from the playwright explaining where he got ideas for the play. It is from the transcript of the Double Dialogue Conference quoted above:

One of the jobs I got finally was at the Department of Agriculture Library. My job was to send out the magazines to various agronomists and herb testers who needed them for their work. I would distribute these journals and so on as they arrived and hunt up books that they wanted and so on and so forth. I ended up reading a lot of it. InChicago Chicago, for example, there was a whole lot of rip offs that I took holus bolus – ‘found’ language. It was the whole thing, yeah, I know Kurt Zwigers and I know William Burroughs and I know this and I know that; I’ll do cover versions and see how they go down. I’m quite proud of Chicago Chicago first performed in 1969. It’s one of the densest things I’ve ever written and it does manage with student casts to mop up a lot of energy and the more people you have the wilder and weirder it can seem, because it’s sort of like symphonic in its treatment, rather than the usual small quartet, sextet or octet that we’re used to in the theatre. Of course the engine of all that stuff was very much Brecht and Meyerhold and Biomechanics and a little bit of Artaud and you’d stumble into Brecht’s output on aesthetics, very interesting challenges to the head…

I sort of worked up Chicago – following the 1968 Democratic Convention and so on. The wisdom of Brecht is – those key remarks – like how do you capture the sense of the twentieth century? You’ve got to bust out of the drawing room drama. You’ve got to have a large social canvass of some sort – the impact on our lives of the stock exchange, the meatworks, the giant shifting of chattels, from corn-fed cattle up to Chicago to the stockyards. Modernism is what? How do you get the sneers of the world you actually inhabit and its impact on you onto the stage?

you drag the new on to that very old arena that the theatre is. But that always was so. So there was a modernist project that I was fulfilling in some ways or drawn to.

All the plays discussed at The Script Club have been ‘interesting challenges to the head’ and for me have been emotionally engaging. That’s what you expect from good writing and good theatre.

I walked out into Melbourne’s nurturing sunshine and a beautiful world of ferries and canoes on the Yarra River, a busker, creative craft market, people shopping, tourists, parents and children hurrying into a performance of the Australian Girls Choir – and even a wedding!

Real-life drama to keep me entertained on the walk to Flinders Street station and homeward bound with my writer’s notebook handy – just in case I do decide to write my play.

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Poetry – a way to release and remember our inner child

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

Neil Gaiman

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

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

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

inner child anthology 1 inner child anthology 2

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

Jan with her artwork:illustration

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

In the Foreword of the anthology the editors say:

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

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

inner child anthology Jan's poem

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

inner child anthology Avril's poem

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

inner child anthology Chris Ringrose

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

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

the shell is at least 62 years old- definitely older

inner child anthology my poem

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

inner child anthology poem by Leigh Hay

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

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

C.S. Lewis

Ten Steps to writing  your own memory poem:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Creative and Cultural Conversation

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“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” 

Kurt Vonnegut

This quote is appealing, but why shouldn’t creative people be entitled to ‘make a living’? One of my dreams, and I know I’m not alone, would be supporting myself from my writing, I’ve never had that luxury. I teach in several different places each week and always chase money to pay the bills. I’m fortunate to teach creative writing and be in the company of those who value words, but to be able to spend unrestricted hours writing what I want is an unfulfilled desire.

At the end of each term I publish the work from the class.
At the end of each term I publish the work from the class.

On Friday, I attended a consultation session at the Melbourne Town Hall convened by the new Victorian Government to consult with those in the creative sector to contribute towards developing “a creative industries strategy that increases the benefits that flow to the State from a vibrant creative and cultural sector.

The strategy will take a whole-of-state approach to enabling the creative and cultural industries to thrive and make a major contribution to Victoria’s future as a liveable, inclusive, prosperous and vibrant society.

Those present at one of the many consultations that will be held were invited to contribute views, ideas and aspirations in a spirit of innovation and collaboration with the facilitator adamant Martin Foley, Victoria’s Minister for Creative Industries is open to new ideas and new approaches and wanted feedback on ten themes:

Fostering creative excellence
Building audiences and markets
Enhancing creative spaces and places
Cultivating skills, entrepreneurship and innovation
Harnessing the opportunities of digital technology
Increasing participation and social impact
Supporting Aboriginal arts and culture
Advancing regional Victoria and outer metropolitan Melbourne
Enhancing international engagement
Increasing tourism

In the discussion paper it was noted:

The creative and cultural industries are a broad but interconnected field spanning arts, culture, screen and design. They encompass disciplines as diverse as game development and graphic design, fashion and filmmaking, performing arts and publishing, architecture and advertising, media and music, comedy and craft. They include activities that are commercially-driven and community- based, experimental and export ready.”

In the room, a dozen large round tables accommodated ten – twelve people. Each of us had a piece of butcher paper and coloured Textas and a scribe with a whiteboard sat out the front to collate.

Halfway through the morning some people swapped tables to ensure the maximum mix in discussion time. My table had a theatre director, a theatre/gallery owner, a university lecturer, a costume designer, a freelance HR manager in the arts industry, Federation Square’s arts project manager and her assistant, an arts council representative for City of Yarra, and an arts and sports event/festival organiser for the City of Bass, a youth music organiser, and an independent artist.

All of us agreed that our greatest challenge was having a decent income to support our art; to allow us the breathing space and time to start and finish projects. We lamented the churning out of graduates in the creative industries who can’t get jobs in their field, haven’t the workshop or studio space, and can’t afford the equipment or technology to pursue their artistic endeavours.

The devaluing of art or creativity starts in schools when there is no designated art teacher. It is carried through to art subjects being marked down at VCE and even in government when Martin Foley is the Victorian Minister for Equality. He is also the Minister for Housing, Disability Services & Ageing, Minister for Mental Health and Minister for Creative Industries. (Mr Foley previously served as the Shadow Minister for Water, Shadow Minister for Arts and Shadow Minister for Youth Affairs.) How important is ‘the arts’ if the minister has to multitask between a variety of sectors?

Everyone desired a model for economic security – the time spent chasing, securing and retaining funding a problem, especially if bureaucrats have a concept that creativity can be switched on and off and run to a timetable.

Perhaps we need to look at funding in other sector models like those used by charities and social services, but most of all the Minister for the Arts/Creative Industries needs to speak to the Minister for Education!

The TAFE system is hands, Universities the head – lots of crossover in creative industries, so both systems need to be funded adequately.

A sculpture in RMIT - which has a university and TAFE sector
A sculpture in RMIT – which has a university and TAFE sector
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Mural on wall at RMIT

There needs to be more collaboration between government sectors and artists: the three tiers of government (local council, state and federal governments) make finding and funding resources a nightmare. The lack of affordable space to develop and present new work, whether it is sculpture or performing arts, can be an almost insurmountable challenge for artists who need to meet and engage with an audience.

The discussion and debate made the air thrum and hum with diverse voices, intense exchanges, shared laughter and plenty of storytelling. Archaeologist, historian, writer or industrial designer –  all have a story and ideas to share – although some people took the view of a narrow definition of ‘professional’ artist.

Indeed what is art – a definition could be debated all day! Even referring to creative industries upset some people. How do you identify as a creative person? What label do you wear?

The sustainability of the creative sector recognised as important – presenting a challenge and opportunities. Participants agreed there was a need and often demonstration of entrepreneurial skills, but many in the sector lack business and marketing skills.

The survival and success of independent artists can be a role model for the wider community, however, we need the arts to be considered across all government portfolios like environmental impact is now considered. All government departments need to embrace funding the arts.

Embed creativity in lifestyle just as coffee is embedded.

This comment reminded me of a cafe near Brighton Beach Station where the work of a NZ poet is chalked on the eaves outside the shop!

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Artistic hubs should be encouraged in outer suburbs and regional areas and when infrastructure is considered for new housing estates an arts hub could be included in the design. Art and culture should be part of building a community. Hubs would facilitate this connection. If space can be allocated for parks and gardens why not the arts?

How do you measure the value of art and culture?

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.” 

Stephen King

We must stop using the language of economics and business-speak – we have our own language in the arts. Why does there always have to be a dollar value? Is it true if you want to be an artist in the afternoon you must be a business person in the morning?

Isn’t investment in equity, diversity, people, and the community’s wellbeing enough? Celebrating diversity and instilling confidence in the creative community important for society’s progress. As is valuing history and heritage. Victoria must be seen to promote cultural literacy and education – sector funding needs to be appropriate as well as directing support to individual artists.

There should be investment in regular programs that work, but also risk taking to encourage innovative projects. If recurrent funding the programs must be accountable and prove their worth. More cross generational programs and culturally diverse ones are needed for balance.

Should culture be free ?

A gasp went around the room when someone asked: If people pay for attending the Grand Prix, why should White Night be free?

Put a bunch of creative people in a room and you stir up a hornet’s nest!

“The creative and cultural industries are central to our identity, to the liveability of our communities, to our social cohesion and to our productivity. They are an essential part of what differentiates Victoria from other places, and have a role to play across virtually every area of society – from education and health, to justice, science, innovation, business and community development.”

The creative and cultural industries contribute to the cultural, social and economic fabric of societies.

  • What can we do to embed creativity in our everyday lives?
  • What can we do to ensure the next generation will be both consumers of, and practitioners in, the creative industries?

Check out the government’s discussion paper and please have your say. It invites your contribution to the development of Victoria’s first creative industries strategy. You may choose to respond directly to the issues and themes canvassed. Or you may choose to make a general submission that addresses other issues.

Responses close on Friday 17 July 2015

“Why am I compelled to write? . . . Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it…”

Gloria E. Anzaldúa

Have you an opinion or ideas for the future of creativity in Victoria? Please spare a few minutes to let the government know.

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?