When counting blessings, friends must be high on your list!

tiled mural flinders street.jpg

Coco Chanel apparently said, ‘Nature gives you the face you have at 20. Life shapes the face you have at 30, but at 50 you get the face you deserve.’

If we sulked or made a funny or unpleasant face, my Mum used to warn, ‘the wind will change and you’ll stay like that.’ Both my parents championed smiling and politeness and modelled being friendly and pleasant.

‘You use more muscles to frown than smile’ is always a good comeback when someone looks glum, but there is no scientific proof behind the old saying!

“Scientists have studied the muscles needed for both facial expressions, and to do a small smile generally uses 10 muscles; a small frown uses 6. On average, a smile uses 12 and a frown 11. However, since humans tend to smile a lot, these muscles are stronger. A frown may be slightly more effort to produce just because we aren’t as used to using these muscles.”

Science Made Simple 

However, scientific proof or not, I’m sticking with smiles, politeness and kindness to people because I feel better when I do and following another piece of Mum advice, ‘civility costs nothing.’

My face – wrinkles et al – reflects life hasn’t been easy but there are plenty of laughter lines and when I meet up with friends there are usually smiles and laughter aplenty and I try and catch up with as many as possible during term breaks.

Spring In Melbourne Town 2018
(A hybrid Haibun)
Mairi Neil

outside Alan McLean Hall.jpg
outside where U3A meet

Today, I won’t be grey and miserable
and definitely ‘not over the hill’
I’m meeting a friend of many years
several hours we’ll happily fill.

On way to the train
U3A club gathering
‘Nice day for an outing!’

Dressed for mercurial Melbourne
sturdy shoes and light jackets,
sunglasses, lanyards with names,
backpacks and lunch in packets.

‘Join us?’ their chorus
prepared for fun and adventure
my kind of ageing…

On the train beside a Metro worker
who’s heading for Glenhuntly Station
we chat about insecure work and gender
driving a train once her inclination.

I’m on the bus now
Meet you under the clocks
C u soon’

A confirmation text received
we’ve embraced the digital age
but I open a book of poetry –
I prefer words written on the page.

Train stops Platform 10
30 steps to reach the street
ever mindful of heart health

Food court wafts hot chips, coffee and cake
September’s Showtime and school hols
Flinders station’s abuzz with children
plus seagull, sparrow and pigeon trolls.

Myki tapped lightly
eyes seek a waiting friend
welcome smiles and hug

Age hasn’t happened all at once
however, we stroll not stride, to NGV
with hours to enjoy art and beauty
top priorities a pee and a cup of tea!

A young girl walks by
her straw hat embroidered –
the word – ‘paradise

Indeed! Melbourne – the world’s most liveable city.

Old friends are gold

Uma and I go back forty years BC (before children) and have encountered storms and defeats; sunny days and triumphs. Recently, retired from full-time work Uma is recovering from a serious back operation. I’m a few years older, almost retired from part-time work – four months to go – but who is counting!

For a just celebrated 61st birthday, Uma received membership to the NGV and as we walked from Flinders Street Station, she extolled the advantages and virtues of access to talks, special events, behind the scene views, plus a membership lounge – our first stop for a complimentary cuppa.

THE FAMOUS GLASS CEILING.jpg
The famous glass ceiling at NGV

I love the NGV too – it is celebrating 50 years this year and I can remember it being built. In fact, I can remember the obligatory school excursion where you got to lie on the floor and stare up at the magnificent and unusual leadlight glass ceiling.

There are always several special exhibitions at the NGV, plus their permanent collection. Uma’s input and knowledge from attending member lectures added to the richness of the day as we wandered through galleries discussing exhibits.

A recent talk about Nick Cave’s work: Sound Suit made her think differently about the pieces and how we perceive each other.

sound suit 1.jpg

Nick Cave makes sculptures that you can wear. These outfits cover the body and remove all traces of the wearer’s identity. When you are wearing a Soundsuit, no one can tell whether you are rich or poor, black or white, male or female…he created his Soundsuit series in an attempt to process his trauma associated with the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

…wearable sculptures act as symbols of endurance and a form of protection by obscuring all signs of the wearer’s race, gender, age, sexual identification and class…

made from everyday materials sourced largely from flea markets, including dyed human hair, plastic buttons, beads and feathers…joyous and spectacular…rattle and resonate when worn in performance.

sound suit.jpg

Both Uma and I were busy mums in 1992, with our firstborns leaving Prep and our second children preparing for playgroup and three-year-old kindergarten. International events reported via radio or television and often delayed by hours but the 1992 LA riots unforgettable because at the same time Australia was facing the reality of the Stolen Generation stories and alarming statistics of Aboriginal deaths in custody.

I expressed my anger and fears at Readings By The Bay, the monthly poetry and story readings held by Mordialloc Writers’ Group:

Our Burning Shame
Mairi Neil 1992

Rodney King – who gave you that name?
A “king’ in a black skin…
some will see the irony
or is it okay as a surname.
Is your destiny entwined
with that other dreamer?

The world watched in horror
as they beat you to the ground…
on the ground
into the ground.
The gang of four with official batons
grasped tightly, wielded as if warriors
beating your head
beating your body
beating your legs

Pounding, pounding, pounding…
a steady funeral dirge
burying the myth racial equality is accepted

Middle-class liberals gasped
horrified at the naked truth
other victims sighed with relief
the truth at last revealed.
Those with the power to change
shrugged away the fuss

A picture is worth a thousand words
a video worth a thousand affidavits
television news beamed across the nation
worth a thousand protests
an opportune political decision
worth a thousand votes

Time dimmed the anger and horror
even brutes deserve a trial…
innocent until proven guilty
but will Nuremberg be revisited?
We waited for the sentence
believing we knew the judgement

A jury without black faces
proved society is controlled
by red necks preferring white liars
who can live with red faces

Now Los Angeles burns –
along with our shame
those with real power
remain unchanged
Cosmetics mask ugly faces
waspish capitalists sting
again and again and again…

Shocked Australians are horrified
yet reality reveals our guilt
smugness shattered
when black deaths in custody
inspire jokes

Our custodians of the law
don’t need lessons in brutality
we watched the scenes in LA
but closed minds
can be switched off
just like television sets

Will our cities burn
today…
tomorrow…
next week…

Now, of course, the time delay is only seconds. The 24Hour media cycle (circus?) barely gives us time to digest, never mind process, events. There are social media platforms and mobile devices offering no escape or relief, and ironically, the reality of ‘fake’ news.

After almost three decades I have to pause, reflect, and ask how much have attitudes and behaviour changed?

Will the wider dissemination of news and events via the Internet make people seek further knowledge, see a different perspective, consider a change in behaviour or attitude – or will it just cement their own truth and beliefs?

Across the room beside Sound Suits is Amelia Falling by Hank Willis Thomas, a most effective photographic image on a mirror and depicting Alabama 1965 – I remember that too almost three decades before the LA Riots! :

amelia falling mirror.jpg

Amelia Falling is derived from an archival photograph taken by photojournalist Spider Martin during the Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama in 1965…

… civil rights activist Amelia Boynton Robinson being carried by fellow marchers after having been gassed and beaten by State Troopers during what was intended to be a peaceful protest…

Willis Thomas states, ‘In a lot of my work I ask the viewer not to be passive but to actually think about active participation’.

 

What artwork will the Trump era produce – chronicle our despair, facilitate change or confront our shame?

Trumpeting Limericks To Let Off Steam

Mairi Neil, 2016

There once was a candidate Trump
elected by those who took hump
at moneyed elites
according to tweets
by Trump’s collective misogynist clump

He blew bigots up like a bicycle pump
‘deplorables’ swelled to a poisonous lump
forget about facts
diplomacy or tact
winning is all that matters to Trump

As the President-elect Donald Trump
sneered at women considered plump
his unleashed tongue
grotesque insults flung
Trump’s misogyny a cancerous lump

His presidency corrupt at the core
means the United States no more
anger and hate
an uncertain fate
Trump’s only about settling a score

He campaigned with deceit and lies
winning the penultimate prize
of course, he’s a fool
others actually rule
will the majority avert their eyes?

From Mexican artist Joaquin Segura we have Exercises on selective mutism, 2012:

protest banner.jpg

In this piece the artist has recovered a found object – a canvas banner discarded in the aftermath of a protest in Mexico City – and transformed it into a minimalist sculpture by applying layers of white paint to its surface. 

The attempt to cover up (literally ‘whitewash’) the banner’s political message is key to the work’s meaning… about efforts to silence, and render invisible, dissent – through omission, spreading misinformation and erasure – and a questioning of conceptual art’s potential to make political claims or to challenge authority.

I love writing Found Poetry and the last lesson for the term in my Writing Creatively class was exploring Found Poetry by reading a column in the local paper which collates local news snippets from a hundred years ago.

The exercise was challenging but productive and I hope the students polish the variety of poems they wrote.

Art can Confront, Challenge, move us from our Comfort Zone

Several other installations prompted discussions on a host of current media topics and various events we’d lived through.

Baby boomers have survived tumultuous, exciting times and have adapted to incredible change, especially the rise of the digital world. I’m glad there is still support for art you can touch, walk around, relate to and experience in real time, not just on screen.

Melbourne is rich with events to attend, particularly during holiday times and I never tire of the trip to the city – as a teacher of creative writing, particularly Life Stories & Legacies, cultural experiences and exhibitions offer a mine of information and material for lessons and ideas to write about, plus triggers for personal memories.

When we write about our past, it’s easy to look at memories as if through a fixed lens. Events and people, including self, coldly observed – especially childhood – embarrassments, failings, mistakes, sometimes enlarged or erased with hindsight, successes perhaps forgotten or if unrecognised at the time, now embellished. The telescope pointed at childhood fixed, and often others not consulted, so the memory, reliable or otherwise, is our own.

The immediate past and middle years, early adulthood onwards not so clear to categorise or to talk about – marriage, parenthood, working life – may still have ongoing repercussions – more likely family, friends and fellow travellers, still alive even if not active participants in your life.

The memories may be raw and traumatic and still needing some distance before reflection.

Our childhood distant, but not the experiences of our own children and their effect on our lives still being worked through, as are decisions that may have affected our health:

  • abandoning regular sport or dancing,
  • quitting smoking,
  • alcohol use,
  • prescription medication,
  • middle-aged spread,
  • promotion at work,
  • redundancies,
  • reducing to part-time
  • or casual work,
  • divorce,
  • widowhood,
  • estrangement,
  • de facto relationships,
  • weddings,
  • grandchildren,
  • retirement,
  • relocation…

… so many experiences and turning points to be written freely or honestly, or perhaps censored with ramifications fully understood.

Shared experiences, Interviewing friends, a Memoir Writer’s fodder

At the NGV, along with discussing the contents of the galleries, Uma and I chatted and remembered events of our forty years friendship. We both are the product of the first wave of feminism and both have daughters who we raised accordingly, hoping they would not go through some of the sexism and inequality we faced.

Uma, as a woman of colour, born in Malaysia, a country with a long history and acculturation from British colonialism, recognises she adapted to Australian society with relative ease compared to other migrants but we agree the conversations around #blacklivesmatter and #metoo are relevant to Australia and long overdue.

Proud to be Feminist

“You’ll love the Guerrilla Girls: Portfolio Compleat,” said Uma as she guided me to the next gallery.

Guerrilla Girls exhibition confronts gender inequality particularly in the creative fields, and because myself and both daughters (a filmmaker and a stop-motion animator) work in creative fields, Uma wanted me to see it.

We found ourselves sharing insights about subtle and not so subtle discrimination in a world that unfortunately still sees power wielded by the privileged, and in western society, the privileged are overwhelmingly white and male.

Uma confided that at work in the public service, even when she was in charge, as the manager or ‘boss’, she sat in the front row at conferences or prominent positions at meetings to be seen and she consciously spoke a little louder to be heard – a woman of colour, she had two hurdles to jump!

Guerrilla Girls is a group of anonymous feminist artists and activists who call themselves ‘the conscience of the art world’. Their posters, billboards, books, videos and live lectures use facts, humour and bold visuals to expose sexism and racism in politics, the art world and popular culture.

The collective formed in New York City in 1985 with the mission to bring gender and racial equality into focus within the greater arts community. The members protect their individual identities by wearing gorilla masks during public appearances and by adopting names of deceased female icons such as Edmonia Lewis, Kathe Kollwitz and Frida Kahlo.

guerrilla girls against trump.jpg

guerrilla girls and domestiv violence.jpg

guerrilla girls and homeless

guerrilla girls anti-war.jpg

Uma pointed to number four on the list of advantages of being a woman artist.

‘You have another 20 years,’ she said with a grin…

guerrilla girls and advantages of being a woman artist.jpg

Many of the observations were witty and shocking but in today’s depressing political climate ‘stating the bloody obvious.

On the way to visit another special exhibition, we paused at random objects that caught our eye.

From ‘in your face’ feminism, to the eighteenth century, known for its enlightened philosophes (you’ll be forgiven for only knowing the names of the male intellectuals – Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Diderot, Hume…) because women were literally and figuratively trapped – in clothes that limited mobility, a society that denied rights and access to education:

dress and shoes 18th c.jpg

The fashionable ideal for women in the eighteenth century comprised voluminous dresses, open at the front to reveal matching stomachers and petticoats, tall powdered clouds of hair and pointed buckled shoes. Skirts were widened with hoops or panniers to create an exaggerated hourglass silhouette that emphasised the natural waistline.

This work is known as a robe a la francaise (or sack-back gown), distinguishable by its sack-back of loose pleating and front robings trimmed with lace that conveys the luxury and ostentation of the period.

During the first half of the eighteenth century, fashionable women’s shoes for the upper and middle classes followed a common form. Straight and narrow with a pointed toe and thick-waisted heel, most were made of rich silk fabric and often had decorative trimmings known as passamaneria. This pair features exquisite metal thread bobbin lace made by braiding and twisting lengths of thread, further edged by strips of braid work. The shoes do not buckle but are worn with the latchets overlapping at the front.

How did they function?

I loved Georgette Heyer’s Regency and Georgian novels as a teenager and imagined floating around in muslin and silk dresses – a visit to a museum would have given me a reality check!

The research required for good historical fiction is painstaking and often clothes play a huge part in whether the story is believable, even more so for screenwriting.

I visited so many museums and galleries when I travelled and often looked at the displays and pondered the hours of labour to make the material, dress and shoes.

My aunt was a tailoress and my older sister an amazing seamstress too, she quilts, embroiders and does all manner of creative needlework. I know the effort and time hand sewing takes – mind-boggling!

However, the men and women hunched in candlelight, in rooms with little or no ventilation, sewing these glamorous gowns earned a pittance and history did not even record their names…

A Stitch in Time (a villanelle)
Mairi Neil

She sits sewing by dim lamplight
embroidered threads by her side
contented, happy, eyes shining bright.

In the stillness of evening light
needle and thread silently glide,
as she sits sewing by pale moonlight.

Cross-stitches, pattern small and tight
new techniques taken in her stride
contented, happy, eyes shining bright.

Her creativity in wondrous flight
imagination flows like the tide
as she sits sewing by candlelight.

Machines embraced despite Luddites
mass production becomes her guide
contentment gone, eyes no longer bright

History records seamstresses’ plight
workers stripped of all but pride
many still struggle in shadowed light
exploited, sad, eyes no longer bright.

A Day For All Things Domestic?

close up indian kitchen.jpg
Curry 2006 by Subodh Gupta

Uma was thrilled to come across an installation by an Indian born artist Subodh Gupta called Curry.

A wall displaying the various utensils used for cooking reminded Uma of growing up in Malaysia and observing her grandmother cooking. There were certain types of pots and pans, spoons and ladles found in every Indian household.

The tiffin boxes brought back memories for me too.

I first heard about tiffins and saw one when John and I became close friends with a workmate, Peter Cordeux who had been born and brought up in India as part of the British Army community.

Whenever we had parties, Peter and his wife Kathy brought a tiffin box filled with delicious curries and rice, which Peter always jokingly claimed he made.

Peter died in 2008, but his stories of growing up in India, holidaying in Pakistan and Afghanistan, being stationed in the Middle East, fighting in Malaya in 1948 during the “Insurgency,” and then the various jobs he had before migrating to Australia, including operating an ice cream van, introduced a whole new fascinating world.

His funny and serious tales reflected in those tiffin boxes! My girls loved their Uncle Peter and still miss him.

Cultural references resonate within the make-up of this artwork: the use of stainless steel in bowls, plates and cups is synonymous with the modernisation and economic development of India in the twentieth century.

Stainless steel replaced kansa (or bell metal, a brittle bronze featuring a high proportion of tin) in the 1950s and 1960s and came to transform the kitchen and eating utensils used in everyday life in India.

The nod to the multitudes of India is made in this work, where straightforward, comparatively small, individual elements are brought together at such a scale that they transcend their everyday nature.

A Writing Exercise

A common writing exercise for those writing family history or memoir is to look in cupboards and write about objects kept for sentimental reasons or as heirlooms. What is the story behind them? Why is it important to write their legacy?

Or write about and explain the value and attachment of everyday objects.

How were they acquired and is there a significant memory attached, like a birthday or anniversary, a travel story?

A trip to the NGV or the museum may help to trigger memories – this stainless steel display certainly did for me and Uma – as did the final special exhibition we walked through.

a stroll through coffee pots

A Modern Life: Tablewares 1930s – 1980s

If you want to date or explain the provenance of that treasured plate or teapot, visit the NGV before 27 January 2019. You’ll have an enjoyable history lesson too and perhaps discover that valuable piece of crockery a la Antique Roadshow!

The layout of some of the displays to mirror popular designs, I found a bit overwhelming and busy, but certainly stunning and there is a great range of designers. So much detail to produce the humble cup and saucer.

Nowadays, in trendy places, you can be offered a jam jar to drink from and your meal served on a wooden board – or even given disposable crockery and cutlery!

Not so in previous decades.

Following the Second World war, societal changes resulted in the decline of domestic servants and many women going out to work. These changes, along with the growing enthusiasm for a modern lifestyle, prompted manufacturers to produce dining wares that were versatile, easily cared for and able to go from the oven to the table.

Postwar optimism also encouraged the development of new tableware forms that were decorated in bold colours and modernist patterns.

This exhibition explores the growing engagement with modern design by commercial manufacturers charting the application of technical innovations in production and decorative techniques in pursuit of commercially competitive products.

Whilst focusing on ceramics, the exhibition also explores the use of new materials resulting from wartime technological advances including plastic, aluminium and stainless steel.

 

As we walked around the cabinets so many memories were triggered.  Personal family stories, especially memories of our mothers and the impact of their preferences, tastes and habits on our own behaviour shopping, cooking, serving meals.

Memories of setting up house in the 80s – scrounging furniture, crockery and utensils to build a home.

Uma was surprised to hear I’d worked in Johnson’s Pottery in the 70s – in fact all members of my family, apart from my young sister, worked in the Croydon factory, producing Australia’s best-known tableware.

mum pinning bench.jpg
Mum on the pinning bench, Johnsons Pottery circa 1968

Dad was a kiln man for ten years, my mother worked on the pinning bench preparing the holders for the pottery to be fired, my brothers were kiln boys helping load and unload the kiln cars and clearing up debris, sorting and stacking; my sister worked in the decorating section and I inspected the finished products and also worked in the office during the traditional three-week Christmas shut-down period.

When the factory closed for maintenance, the only person running the office was Mr Stephen Johnson, the boss and owner before Wedgewood bought the company. Teenage me on university holidays was hired to answer the telephone and type letters.

At the time Johnsons negotiated special deals with shops like GJ Coles, David Jones and Myer – they chose a specific design that became their exclusive tableware. I took a call from the famous GJ Coles who was a personal friend of Mr Stephen’s and made afternoon tea for the many suited gentlemen who visited to seal agreements for the coming year. 

I can remember the fuss when Johnsons moved away from traditional whiteware and made their first stoneware as they tried to compete with imports from Japan.

stoneware plates.jpg
Japanese stoneware

Technology and mass production has made a lot of household items disposable but access to good quality tableware used to be prized – the first complete set of tableware for many being the traditional wedding present of a dinner set.

Most of my family, myself included, had a dinner set gifted as a wedding present. I have a couple of plates, the remnants of the wedding present to my grandparents and parents. Bone China still cherished and on show in cabinets in the homes of many of my generation.

John’s sister in England has a magnificent collection of blue and white pottery (Delftware) and Royal Albert and Royal Doulton Bone China, but the coffee sets and tableware in this exhibition very much examples of the everyday pieces that may not survive intact if their purpose and design enjoyed rather than displayed!

The bold colours of the 70s and 80s obvious and I’m sure similar pieces can be found in Opportunity shops as my generation declutter.

I don’t think young people today place the same value on many of the possessions older generations had to use a greater percentage of their disposable income to acquire.

I can recall seeing the famous blue Willow pattern for the first time when I came to Australia in 1962. We stayed with a cousin of Dad’s and that was the pattern of her everyday dishes. I fell in love with the oriental scenes, my imagination working overtime as usual because I’ve always had a fascination with China.

In the early days of living in Mordialloc, one of the retail chains had a sale of Blue Willow pattern crockery and I bought a set.

When the girls were young, they too ate their cereal from Willow-patterned bowls. I’ll have to ask them if the scenes had any impact on them – I’m pretty sure their answer will be no.

But perhaps in the future, looking back on their childhood or wandering through an art gallery or museum with a friend…

For Auld Lang Syne

I’m lucky to have several dear friends to enjoy the present and some have shared the immediate and not so distant past – the part of life we often struggle to write about in terms of memory and reflection.

Talking about shared experiences or interviewing friends about a particular event can help with perspective when the desire or in some cases, an urgency to record a life for family members or the general community arises.

There are three classes into which all the women past seventy that ever I knew were to be divided: 1. That dear old soul; 2. That old woman; 3. That old witch. 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

A couple of centuries have passed since Coleridge made that statement about ‘old women’. I’m heading towards seventy and some friends are there already and we’d all agree he got it wrong. 

We may still be fighting for gender equality, and ageism is a reality, but thankfully Coleridge and the other Romantic Poets with patriarchal and sexist views are only around in print and any modern poet expressing similar views will have to contend with shaming by Guerrilla Girls!

I loved my day out with Uma and look forward to catching up with other friends ‘of a certain age’ and intend to enjoy lots of the available activities in October as we celebrate how great it is to be a senior in Melbourne.

McCall Smith – A Number One Author And Raconteur

Alexander mcCall Smith - happy to see fans

Last month, I went to a Writers’ Victoria event, held at The Atheneum to hear Melbourne’s Toni Jordan in conversation with Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith. She introduced McCall Smith by listing his writing accomplishments first:

  • 60 adult novels published,
  • 50 children’s novels
  • and the acclaimed 44 Scotland Street series
  • his work translated into 46 languages

Jordan concluded her introduction with “Alexander has been described as a literary phenomenon, a force of nature, and an endless source of joy around the world.

Needless to say, the filled-to-capacity theatre burst into rapturous applause proving that his fans agreed – and he hadn’t yet uttered a word!

a novel about happiness

Once McCall Smith began speaking, the conversation became very one-sided – in the words of my late mother Alexander McCall Smith can ‘talk the hind legs off a donkey’ and I’ll use her lovely Scottish word meant in the kindest of ways, he’s “a blether.

Although McCall Smith does not talk for the sake of talking, his warm-hearted view of humanity, his intelligence, a keen sense of humour, and wide-ranging life experience ensure that he is a fabulous raconteur.

We hung on every deliciously entertaining word and later queued up outside for a few minutes with the man himself when he agreed to sign books and pose for photographs. (The publisher arranged for a young man to do the duty of dealing with numerous digital devices!)

Kindness and generosity two words that come easily to the lips regarding this prolific author dressed in an off-white suit, highly polished leather shoes and exuding genteel elegance as he relaxed comfortably in the spotlight.

He introduced himself to the audience by saying if people had come to the wrong place he didn’t mind if they left and then proceeded to tell the first of many anecdotes of the evening.

‘Turning up at the wrong venue is easy to do,’ he said. “A few months ago, a man came up to me at an author’s event in New York and said he’d enjoyed my lecture although he had booked to hear an author talk about the atom bomb!”

As the laughter subsided, Toni asked Alexander, when he began writing books and leaning back into his chair, he launched into a story he’d obviously told many times.

He sent his first manuscript off when eight years old. “ It was unpublishable, of course, and probably all of two pages long. A melodrama along the lines of ‘He’s gone’ and explaining who, why and where…

He received a polite rejection letter from the publisher, “Carry on working.” McCall Smith laughed when he said, “at least in those days publishers answered every submission and gave encouragement along with rejection!”

a novel about bertie

This story led to another personal snippet revealing again his kindness and cheeky sense of humour. A seven-year-old boy knocked on his door one day holding a book he had written.

Go and show Mr McCall Smith,’ said the boy’s mother from the background, “he’s a writer.”

The book was two sentences long, called The Great Toffee Theft.

Great title,’ he told the boy.

The story was ‘A man stole a toffee. The police came and arrested him.’ The End.

The Scottish author Ian Rankin, writer of novels about the detective Rebus, lives two doors up from McCall Smith in Edinburgh, so Alexander sent the boy up to Ian’s house advising, “Mr Rankin’s into crime, he’ll be better placed to give you feedback on your manuscript.”

This recollection was the perfect segue into stories about how he sometimes inserts real people into his novels ‘with their permission, of course.’

Like all writers, he draws on life experiences for plots, characters and setting, but you can tell he has fun with all this too. The first time he put Rankin into a novel was as a cameo when he bought a valuable stolen painting from a charity shop. When Ian realised it had been stolen he returned it to the original owner. Rankin’s comment was “I wouldn’t be so decent if it was that valuable!”

In another story, Alexander had one of the Queen’s Royal Archers, ‘a doddery bunch now’ fire an arrow that goes astray and hits Ian Rankin on the shoulder. He is helped by young Bertie, one of McCall Smith’s regular heroes who recognises Rankin as a famous author because ‘a lot of his books are in the window of the local secondhand bookshop for 50p.’

Ian’s feedback? “Not true, they’d be at least £1!”

McCall Smith asked Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, (2007-2014) if he could put him in a story. ” He seemed quite chuffed.” McCall Smith had the First Minister save young Bertie from a runaway truck when the young boy froze while crossing the road. The manuscript was sent to the First Minister’s office for approval and he got a reply back in 45 minutes, “very satisfactory”. (The fastest bureaucratic approval on record!)

44 scotland street

However, he tries not to use real people he’s read about in his writing and said, “it is rude not to Google because it implies they’re not worth Googling.” He puts in a name plus what scandal they may be involved in just to check he won’t be offending a real live person … at this point he strayed into the murky waters of Australian politics by suggesting with mock outrage that ‘the bloke with the hat (Barnaby Joyce) has had some unkind words said about him.”

Toni managed to ask a question about McCall Smith’s writing, in particular about the serial novel and the much-loved 44 Scotland Street series.

Serial Novels

Serial novels, a genre not that common nowadays but popular in the times of Charles Dickens, and also with Tolstoy, Trollope and Flaubert.

Dickens used it as a common way to earn a living, publishing a chapter a week in a newspaper or magazine, and generally ending with a cliffhanger. This was pre-television and so he was writing the soap operas of the day. Every chapter 12,000 words and often characters fell asleep at end of the chapter – “soporific writing” said McCall Smith, “because in synchronicity, the readers often fell asleep too!

The books would be available in libraries and the cheeky public would correct any errors they found.

There is a writer in the United States from San Francisco who revived the serial novels for the newspaper San Francisco Chronicles. Alexander met him at a writers’ convention and was advised: “Don’t write serial novels”.

Advice McCall Smith chose to ignore and when he returned to Scotland he began writing chapters in the series 44 Scotland Street.

Producing a regular chapter can be a lot of pressure and he tries to ‘have a few up his sleeve’ but that doesn’t always mean meeting deadlines is easy.

Alexander was approached by Cunard shipping to sail around South America for free and be a ‘celebrity’ guest aboard the ship. “Now if they write to you,” he said, “always say, yes.

He had committed himself to writing a serial book but the Internet dropped out around Cape Horn. He asked the audience if they had heard of the Bermuda Triangle. This experience was similar because there was “no cloud”. He was writing instalments of Scotland Street and luckily always had some in hand or he would have missed all of his instalments for that period.

He suggested people try writing a book this way each instalment building up –  a chapter a day soon leads to a book!

no 1 ladies detective agency

 

We shall change all that… because it is possible to change the world, if one is determined enough, and if one sees with sufficient clarity just what has to be changed.”

The Kalahari Typing School for men, Alexander McCall Smith

Many people in the audience, discovered McCall Smith from his writing about Botswana, a country where he lived and one he has “a real affection for.”  He still visits regularly.

His books about The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency introduced the African country to many readers, and many readers to author McCall Smith.  Internationally, he became a household name.

It was the first of McCall Smith’s books I read and this year is the 20th anniversary of the first novel published in 1998 but “written and heartfelt in 1996”.

On his website, he exhorts us to ‘celebrate 20 years of Humanity. Kindness. Humour. Forgiveness. And sheer Joy.’ And I can remember how wonderful the first book was – how refreshing to read a positive book about an African country where the protagonist, Precious Ramotswe (wonderful name) was female, not precious but ordinary and down-to-earth, yet she had an extraordinary dream, which she persisted to make reality with intelligence and drive.

The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series started life as a short story written for friends but took hold of its author and grew first to one novel and then, over the space of twenty years, to nineteen (the nineteenth book, The Colours of All the Cattle, to be published later this year). The characters have won the hearts of readers around the globe and together, the eighteen volumes published so far have become one of the world’s most successful series, with over 20 million copies sold in English and translations into 46 languages. Written as a long love-letter to a country and culture which he admires, Alexander has no plans to bring this series to an end anytime soon.

Precious Ramotswe, that kind and cheerful woman of traditional build, is the founder of Botswana’s first and only ladies’ detective agency. Her methods may not be conventional, and her manner not exactly Miss Marple, but she’s got warmth, wit and canny intuition on her side, not to mention Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, the charming proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and Mma Makutsi her able assistant who never tires of telling people that she graduated with a mark of 97% from the Botswana Secretarial College.

Alexander explained how the first edition of the original book had a print run of 1500 but now has 25 to 30 million copies. He was a bit worried the publisher was being too optimistic about the book and promoting it, especially when they sent him to the USA.

Referring to the United States, he said when he visited to promote his books they were friendly but he discovered they love titles and in that country ‘everybody is a vice president – even if they just look after the coffee or the photocopying machine or publicity!

He was invited to lunch with all the vice presidents and the meeting extended from 11 to 4 p.m. He knew then that the book would take off, so to celebrate he went out and bought new shoes “two of them” for $140.

He was staying at a club related to a membership he had in Scotland. His room was not too far from the bathroom but his American publicist was mortified “You are sharing a bathroom!?”

Now when he goes to America he has his own bathroom – his books have let him step up his comfort level. However, he considered sharing a bathroom an important stage to go through. It builds character, he noted with a smile and proceeded to reminisce about his student days.

(For many years Alexander was a professor of Medical Law and worked in universities in the UK and abroad before turning his hand to writing fiction. He has written and contributed to more than 100 books including specialist academic titles.)

He has shared with “dirty people, experienced bathrooms with unidentified hairs (let’s not go there!) and fridges filled with ghastly food,” although flatmates have been great. He then added his humorous take, “Meet them later in life and they are transformed. But do you read about their convictions?”

McCall Smith’s generous writing and dry humor, his gentleness and humanity, and his ability to evoke a place and a set of characters without caricature or condescension have endeared his books to readers

New York Times

Toni managed to steer McCall Smith back onto writing and some of his other talents. He talked about being on a boat in Africa and passing the camp of two authors who were experts on baboons. He shouted across the water, “I have read Baboon Metaphysics.” This resulted in a very rare invitation to stay overnight at the campsite and learn more from the authors and their research.

The book explains how powerful female baboons are dominant. They are ambitious and for McCall Smith, not unlike Lady Macbeth so he wrote an opera about a troupe of baboons.

He collaborated to produce a chamber opera with music by Tom Cunningham to his libretto. Set in the Botswana Okavango Delta, it tells the story of the struggle for power among competing baboons in their matriarchal society—thus drawing parallels with the Macbeth story.

THE OKAVANGO MACBETH

Written for Botswana to appease his fascination with primatology,  and an idea of baboon people.

In 2008, Alexander set up a small opera house in the bush just outside Gaborone, in Botswana. “It is really a garage converted with 60 seats,” but he hosted the Premiere of his opera which he said is “a really terrible opera for musically challenged people.” However, “they perform and travel with it so it can’t be all that bad until people find out what I say is true!

The project was undertaken jointly with David Slater, a long-time resident of Botswana who had made a major contribution over the years to music in that country. The opera house was housed in an old converted transport garage discovered by Alexander when he was looking for places similar to the garage featured in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. It was converted into a modest auditorium with seating for sixty.

For four years, The No. 1 Ladies’ Opera House gave local singers a chance to perform in opera and in regular concerts. Botswana has a tradition of choral singing. “There are many wonderful singers there, and this gave them the opportunity to show and develop their talents. It also gave people in Gaborone the chance to see the occasional opera, something which until then, they did not have.”

The Opera House remained open until 2012. It is now closed.

Other Collaborations

He has had many collaborations, especially with composers and has worked in other branches of the arts for the last decade. For Scotland At Night he wrote the poems and Tom Cunningham wrote the music.

He loves music and created an orchestra from other people who love music ‘but are not very good.’ The conductor stopped them once because they were all playing different music! RTOM, he said – really terrible orchestral music!

Alexander and his wife Elizabeth were the founding members of the Really Terrible Orchestra, a hugely popular amateur orchestral ensemble based in Edinburgh city centre.

A bassoonist, sousaphonist and contrabassoonist, Alexander, inspired by the pleasure his own children seemed to get from orchestral playing, worked to get the ensemble going in 1995. At the time it had just 10 players and rehearsed music for the sheer fun and enjoyment of it.

The main ethos of the RTO is clear; it’s an ensemble for those who have been prevented from playing music, either through lack of talent or some other factor, to play in the company of players of a similarly terrible standard. The name was given, thankfully, to ensure that audiences would know that what they see is what they hear.

Now with 65 players and a terrible international reputation to uphold, the orchestra is more in demand than ever. Rehearsing fortnightly the ensemble is currently under the musical direction of ‘Sir’ Richard Neville-Towle.

Last year in Stockholm Sweden, he was literally astonished how many joined in the RTO. They always get a professional conductor – ‘one who’s doing the country a service.’ Socially, it is great – two trumpeters married; the viola and the double bass also met and married – the couples even produced babies!

The breadth of his body of work vividly evokes places and characters who are infused with humanity, decency, wit and humour

The National Arts Club citation

Alexander McCall Smith and me 3

 

Alexander’s Poetry

We were then treated to a performance of one of McCall Smith’s poems. He announced that it would be brief because “Often when you read a poem, even a brief one, it is a signal for people to leave.”

The poem was from his annual pamphlet that he circulates to friends. He makes 800 copies but “Actually I have only 14 friends.” The rest of the copies go to strangers.

He always puts a poem at the end of the Scotland Street books.

He was amused by a sign he saw from the taxi in LA that said, HYPNOTHERAPY NEXT RIGHT.

He loves signs and they often inspire a poem. He especially loves signs in other languages with the English translation – many of these don’t quite get the nuances of English or are more poetic than English. He uses this when he transposes them to include in his poem.

He remembered one that was in French hanging from a rickety fence above a cliff. In English it should read ‘do not lean against’ but the translated sign beneath the French read ‘do not lean again’. This much more intriguing and realistic considering the state and site of the fence!

Another sign about urinating was translated as “No Pissing” “How irrepressible and unrepentant” said McCall.

The poem he read was inspired by the sign in LA and was set on an aeroplane. He made fun of the choice of words pilots use – “at this time we commence our descent” instead of “now we are going to land.” The poem, telling the story of a flight and landing explored the idea of pilots speaking in poetic language instead of bland words. Like most of his poems, this one was humorous and brief, with a little satire.

After reading his poem, Alexander addressed the audience: ‘Any questions or complaints? You can complain.

As if!

People queued to ask him questions, each one an adoring fan.

The first question was about his Safaris to Botswana. He’s done 4 or 5 and “They’re lots of fun.” The next one is in September for one week. They visit three towns and he loves meeting readers and loves Botswana.

He was asked about Arthur Upfield and his character Boney who was in a series of books. He remembered reading them but it was a long time ago and he didn’t know it had been turned into a television series.

He said crime fiction is about place, and he likes Keating’s books set in Bombay. “A place of eminence and a strong character are the two most important elements of crime fiction.” With a wry smile, he acknowledged the popularity of Scandinavian Noir yet, “I was in Stockholm and didn’t see one murder!”

When he was asked what he thought of the TV series of his Number One Ladies Detective Agency rather than criticise he commented that there was also a full-length movie made. Unfortunately, the director died on the day of the film premiere. The TV series “did a good job but the film was very respectful to the book.”

He visited the film set and watched how they did some scenes 15 times to get it right. The funeral scene repeated again and again because everybody was so moved. Even the cameramen cried and they had to redo it. Anthony Magellan, the director of the film really captured the essence of the characters and story and he also got good actors for the film.

And the evening was over – a delightful “conversation” fittingly ended while talking about Precious Ramotswe and Botswana. They left the stage too soon but then delightful evenings are never long enough!

I was thrilled to have my few minutes with the author and to buy a couple more of his wonderful novels. In a world where we are bombarded daily with increasingly sad news escaping with a Mccall Smith novel soothes the spirit because it reaffirms the existence of a lot of wonderful, kind, gentle, and genteel folk and entertaining stories don’t have to be angst-ridden with mainly imperfect, unlikeable characters.

It was Ian Rankin who claimed that as global politics becomes more turbulent, the world will increasingly find itself in need of Alexander McCall Smith’s heart-warming novels, and he is right’ 

The Scotsman

the atheneum library sign

Inspired by Alexander’s reading of signs and creating poetry I decided to make an attempt to record the evening in verse and pics – after all, April is Poetry Month!

The Pursuit of Happiness
Mairi Neil

My dancing self visited Melbourne city
to listen to Alexander McCall Smith
an author known for his savoir-faire,
worldly and renowned teller of tales
that captivate. Colourful, uplifting
they counteract an oft bleak world…

I walk past the majestic Town Hall
hosting Hermès At Work
an exhibition about the birth
of the international luxury brand.
Displays of handmade objets incroyable.
Admission free to anyone who’ll listen

as clever artisans tell their stories
of commitment to craft
of style, beauty and excellence.
I doubt the homeless huddled
and begging from nearby doorways
will take up their offer…

Along the street, I stride
passing a profusion of flowers
of red, gold and orange blossoms
their subtle perfume and prettiness
a defence against the toxic traffic
and soulless concrete jungle

Utility bollards appropriated
by street artists and decorated
exhort passersby to celebrate
the timeless beauty and spirit
of Victoria’s Koori people
stalwarts of faith and courage

meaningful silhouettes and shadows
sun, moon, stars, crosses and hands
images of fertility and life cycles
unlike the ugly graffiti
meaningless tags from non-artists
seeking celebrity or notoriety.

I reach Melbourne’s Atheneum
An embodiment of Emperor Hadrian’s
seat of intellectual refinement.
A queue of literary patrons
wriggles around the block –
their joyous anticipation catching.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Writing Classes – A Wealth of Wisdom, Wistfulness, and Wellbeing…

kingstonmycityfinalcover-copy1

Why Enrol In A Writing Class?

I’m grappling with this question as I prepare lesson plans to start the new writing term. Putting myself in the shoes of prospective students. I know some of my past students are returning – they’ve already been in touch, checking dates and times with several looking forward to continuing their projects, meeting up with old friends, learning new techniques and returning to some structure to their week.

mongolian script.jpg

But why do we write?

I’ve been addicted and passionate about words and writing all my life so it’s a question I’ve often asked and been asked!

Is it a desire or need to scribble thoughts on paper, record imaginings, in a belief it is important, or fun, urgent or pleasurable – or a combination of all of these?

So many people express the desire to write and record their story ‘if they had time’ or ‘when I finish work’, ‘when the kids leave home’, or numerous other excuses. Just as many start a book and don’t finish.

And despite stating how much I love writing, I can identify with all those categories and excuses!

Maybe that’s why I love teaching writing classes – it keeps me writing, keeps me motivated and engaged, and keeps the dream of the printed word alive.

The novel may be unfinished but hundreds of stories and poems are written, shared, and published.

class anthologies 2017

Emotion, Trauma, Social Justice – Strong Motivators For Writing

A life-changing experience or strong feelings often encourage people to pick up a pen or switch on a computer. The opposite, of course, can be true – many people write from boredom. They need the adrenaline rush of exercising their imagination and writing the books they love to read!

I am always fascinated by the variety of responses to a single prompt.

Students can fill a page with characters and plot, or pluck beautiful prose from their memory, write original metaphors and similes and then weave the words into remarkable settings to immerse readers and listeners in the power of story.

Or they address and simplify concepts, share life-transforming events that speak to profound truths and touch the heart…

stretch limo.jpg

Writing Poetry And Short Stories Can Solve Dilemmas

A problem shared is a problem halved,” Mum used to say.

Sleep on it” or “take a walk and mull it over” some other good advice if a burning resentment must be exorcised,  difficult decisions faced, or a dilemma solved.

Rather than real life exposes or rants, writers can put characters in a situation, give them the problem to solve, the ethical conundrum, the family feud, the injustice to fight – work it all out on paper.

It’s useful and even therapeutic to have characters take the criticism or kudos, make the mistakes, work through the issues.

julie signing her book at launch

Many people have a need to be creative and writing may satisfy that need. You may not have the stamina to produce a novel but exploring poetry can be exceptionally satisfying and fun.

Wordplay, riddles and even returning to childhood rhymes and fairy tales and writing new ones all valid and satisfying writing projects.

Form poetry a good starting point and everything from affairs of the heart, the devastation of war, to the meaning of life can be expressed through poetry.

Writing isn’t all about entertainment or amusement nor does it have to be obscure or difficult to understand but it does have to connect with the reader in some way.

view from train between LA and San Fran 2012

Playful And Powerful – English Has A Word That Fits…

English… What’s That?
Mairi Neil

English is definitely a funny language –
funny peculiar and funny ha ha!
So many words with double meanings,
unusual spelling – can drive you ga ga!

Let’s take a word like mean,
an average word you understand,
unless like Scrooge you won’t share
or be a bully – and don’t care.

So many words that sound the same,
they’re annoying and confusing,
their meaning drastically different –
mistakes often highly amusing.

Some words sound how they look,
so clap for onomatopoeia and be glad,
but knowing phonetics doesn’t stop
those silent letters making you mad.

You can pinch a pinch of salt,
and we know a flea can flee,
that ship’s sail may be on sale –
but no way can a pea, pee.

The pale moon won’t fit in a pail,
but every tale can have a tail,
a little mite has a lot of might
and that rite may not be right.

A mayor can ride a mare,
he may stand on a stair to stare,
and eat local fare at a fair,
their jobs are always there.

Your genes may fade like jeans,
and I’ll shed a tear over a tear,
worry about the whole of a hole,
being the sole keeper of my soul.

Criticisms of English usage has weight,
when you can eat a date while on a date
and meet a terrible fate at a fete,
by discovering pâté on your pate!

A male can deliver the mail
and a hare without hair is rare,
but both can be weak for a week
if bones creak because of a creek.

And English has many phrases,
difficult for learners to understand,
like ‘pot calling the kettle black’
oh, the language is underhand!

Advice ‘from the horses’ mouth’,
‘without a shadow of a doubt’,
advises dreaded cliches to avoid –
but it’s hard weeding those phrases out.

English language confusing and amusing,
yet its richness can be rewarding –
once mastered, you’ll be addicted,
and it’s not banned or even restricted!

 

workshop board longbeach place
Henry Ford advocated lifelong learning

 

Do You Need to Write or Just Want to Set Your Imagination Free?

Kingston Seniors Festival with Mary O Rourke + Mordialloc Writers Group - Sat. 11.10.2014 (23)

I’m looking forward to the start of another teaching year. Meeting new and old students coming together to write. Each one will have their own voice and style and a dream or project.

All will be united in their love of words.

Some will write fact, others fiction.

Some will struggle with the blank page. Their words dripping like a slow-leaking tap, while the ink from the pens of others gushes like Niagara Falls.

Stories that have waited a lifetime to be written will astound, others will be fictionalised to be more palatable or easier to write.

Short story fantasies or gritty realism, profound poems or funny doggerel – all shared to inspire each other.

Passions rekindled and new passions created as genres are explored.  From comfort zone to brain challenging learning. Each class new friendships will form as we become a writing community.

The price of wellbeing rarely factored in when the beancounters in government look at community education today. It is all about being job ready or being digitally and technologically savvy.

Wellbeing, not a word to use when applying for education funding apparently.

Yet, some of the most talented writers in my classes have lived 80 years or more. They still want to learn, still want to write, and are producing wonderful stories and poems. Seeking employment and digital glory, not their highest priority!

Octogenarian
wise, retired
writing, learning, producing
lifelong learner combatting isolation
Student

They create a legacy for the next generations, they focus on writing and building new friendships for a few hours a week… forget age and ability … they have aptitude and attitude!

They’ll embrace new techniques and tools but it’s about the words, emotions and engagement.

walk in Skye

 

WHY WRITE?
Mairi Neil

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

If You Are A Writer…

You do need to write!

So, join a class at your local community house – I’ll be at Chelsea on Mondays and Bentleigh on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

We’ll be Writing Creatively and passionately, recording Life Stories and sharing others.

Supporting each other, forever learning, observing, commenting on and enjoying life because that’s what writers do!

learning fil editing

 

Walking the Neighbourhood – Friendship, Familiarity, Foolishness – Fun and Fitness a Bonus!

walking and happiness.jpg

I try and factor a routine walk every day, and feel lucky to have a walking buddy for the times when I’m not with one of my daughters and Aurora, our dog.

Walking helps keep me fit. I stay connected to what’s happening in the neighbourhood. As well as the comforting silence of companionship on our walks, there can be sharing of confidences, chat, and laughter.

Jillian is a writer too and puts up with my exclamations and snapping photos, also random commentary, and imaginative ramblings on everything from unusual-shaped trees,  abandoned furniture (it’s hard rubbish collection at the moment), unsightly redevelopment, gorgeous gardens (ain’t Spring wonderful), beautiful cloud formations, and politics (where do you start or finish?).

love is love sign albert street.jpg

Last year, I volunteered for a project at the Arts Centre, where ‘The Walking Neighbourhood’ brought adults and children together to look at the importance of walking to help understand your community and society through the eyes of children.

The world, beyond community and comfort zones, is often a sad place and it takes an effort not to absorb the doom and gloom, particularly enormous tragedies like the recent shootings in Las Vegas, the massive hurricanes, earthquakes and threatened volcano eruptions, and neverending wars.

The 24-hour news cycle and the portability and pervasiveness of social media constant reminders that make switching off difficult.

But for sanity’s sake, switch off we must, and walking the neighbourhood does it for me. It’s my equivalent of meditation, helps free the mind, and encourages staying connected to a place I love, even if I do see changes that I don’t like…

I appreciate the beauty, bump into friends and acquaintances and get ideas for writing.

  • Note to self, finish that mystery novel set on Mordi Creek!
  • Thank you, Ellie, my past student who ran towards me smiling and with open arms when I met her a couple of days ago.
  • How I love the cacophony of twittering birds each night settling to nest in the palm trees lining Main Street – a signature sound of Mordialloc!

modi creek - boat

The last few days we’ve walked down to the foreshore and along by Mordialloc Creek and experienced Melbourne’s famous ‘four seasons in a day’ – every day!

When I walk, I often automatically step over the cracks in the pavement, shortening or lengthening my stride, sometimes giving a little hop.

Why?

It’s a throwback to childhood and proof of how a combination of words, ideas and a catchy tune is effective and retained by reader, viewer or listener – ‘the audience’.

I remember following the leader or pretending to play hopscotch (called ‘beds’ in Scotland) and chanting, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” Perhaps adding other rhymes like, “Step on a line, break your mother’s spine.”

(oh yes, definitely, gender stereotyping and/or misogyny at work in the 50s!) In fact, if you want to read an academic explanation of the rhyme, here is a link! 

However, it may still require you to think for yourself, do your own research and dig deeper! Maybe even question this interpretation. For many childhood rhymes, there is a host of meanings or historical reasons put forward, most still subject to debate.

The most logical for this one is that in the days of cobblestones and poorly made roads you’d get covered in mud or rubbish if you weren’t careful where you walked. This gave mothers extra washing. 

In the days of hand washing or communal laundry facilities, bending over a washing tub or river could certainly be back-breaking work. The rhyme a strong commonsense message for children not to trip and create extra dirty clothes for mothers.

Or maybe avoiding stepping on the cracks, was just another superstition like avoiding walking under a ladder. Superstition and Education, a book published in 1905 suggests stepping on a crack brings bad luck or missing out on a nice surprise at home – or even more disconcerting as superstitions go,  returning home to a nasty surprise.

After A.A. Milne published his poem “Lines and Squares,” kids decided you’d be chased by bears if you stepped on a crack, but like all childish chants, I doubt anyone in the UK ever took it seriously… 

… yet, some days I still avoid the cracks and find the rhyme from childhood is playing in a loop. Jillian admitted, she too has the occasional urge to play ‘don’t step on the cracks’ and feels a sense of achievement if she makes her destination unscathed!

albert street.jpg

Don’t Step On The Cracks
Mairi Neil

Don’t step on the cracks
when you walk along,
Don’t step on the cracks,
I hear my childhood song…

Bad luck will come and make you feel sad,
If you step on the cracks, the Devil’ll be glad!

He’ll steal your happiness
everything will go wrong,
Don’t step on the cracks
insists the childish song…

Not stepping on the cracks silly, I know
but my childhood memory still tells me so!

lines and squares.jpg

Some days there’s a lot happening – and not all of it is cause for celebration…!

This morning I woke to the whine of a chainsaw – again – and wondered which block was being cleared for redevelopment.

Which house liveable yesterday is now transformed into a building site? I didn’t have far to walk – just around the corner into Powlett Street.

This house, probably only 20 years old. It had a wonderful garden mixture of trees, shrubs and flowers, black wrought iron fence, tiled verandah, oak doors, a gem in the street …

… reduced to rubble; to be replaced by nondescript townhouses – as many as the developer can squeeze on the corner block.

Empty for some time, it was sad to see windows deliberately smashed, roof tiles heaved into shattered lumps and doors and garden trashed – to ensure I suppose that squatters didn’t move in, or perish the thought scavengers may try to salvage some of the tiles, bricks and wooden frames.

Apparently, nowadays it costs more to recycle and reuse – bash and trash the norm.

John and I renovated our old Edwardian house with recycled and secondhand materials because that was all we could afford. Our journey valuable (and fun), teaching us to be innovative, imaginative, and thrifty. We upskilled and adapted plans to save money, lived within our means, and all the time considered the character of our home and respected our neighbours.

renovating important

On another of my walks, I met a friend in nearby Eurythmic Street. After being retrenched from her job, she and her almost-retired husband decided to ‘cash in’ on the high city house prices and move to the country.

She was astounded when the buyer said he proposed to develop her weatherboard home and ‘average’ sized block and build 7 double-storey townhouses!

Melbourne is growing and the increasing population need somewhere to live, but some suburbs (including Mordialloc) are bearing the brunt of this growth because we live in an area controlled by a council too pro-development, or other councils are refusing to play their part in the State Government’s overall plan for Melbourne.

In my opinion, the City of Kingston, in the last few years has let the residents down as certain councillors cared for their own interests or political affiliations rather than the wellbeing of the residents.

For too many years we’ve had to fight for height restrictions, a limit on backyard density – even struggled to maintain the Green Wedge and some local parks.

When John and I arrived here in 1984, the first public meeting we attended was to stop the rezoning of our street to allow 4-storey development – conflicted visions about what residents and authorities want has been around a long time!

After that meeting, the Council was forced to accept a 2-storey limit, but with various changes of government at state and local level, the area is now earmarked for high-density development.

We are within what is classed as ‘an activity node’! And 3 or 4 storeys are probably not out of the question depending on the overall height.

As evidenced by some of the ugly new buildings, the loss of heritage ‘old Mordialloc’ and the craftsmanship and quality materials of bygone days, has led to streets crowded with traffic.

We could definitely do with a planning department with a better long-term vision regarding aesthetics and quality of life for residents.

 

The big changes occurring at the other end of Albert Street have taken many people by surprise. A string of 3-storey units being built alongside the railway line where a timber yard and other light industrial sites used to be is turning out to be a huge development.

This involves the construction of huge concrete baffle walls, but I doubt that will stop the noise or vibration from the goods trains that ply the line to Hastings. The concrete walls are monstrous and ugly and can be seen from the pier as you look up from Mordialloc Creek.

Spot the irony:

The developer’s sign reads A Celebration of Mordialloc ” a suburb rich in history“!

albert and bear street 1

Do we laugh or cry at the absurdity?

A lot of Mordialloc’s history is disappearing along with houses and traditional backyard with Hill’s Hoist. Our links to horse-breeding and racing reduced to a statue and occasional sign and many don’t know about the market gardens and our fast disappearing arable land.

images-1.jpg

Let’s hope the quality of life people expect when they move bayside doesn’t disappear too.

  • Where are all the cars going to park?
  • How long are people prepared to wait at intersections?
  • Are we ready to adjust to the increased noise levels?

I discovered this old poem I wrote when I first started Readings By The Bay on Sunday afternoons.

The Day Of The Trees (1995)
Mairi Neil

I read about trees today,
they made headlines in the newspaper.
Rainforest areas in South America
are being cleared at the rate of
a football field a minute.

I heard about trees today,
they made the news on the radio.
Greenies stopped loggers
destroying unique species of possum
in our native forest in Gippsland

I discussed trees today with a neighbour,
they made the nightly news on television.
The Premier ordered hundreds of trees
to be chopped and cleared to make way
for a Grand Prix at Albert Park.

Trees are even in the local news.
Council workers trim the trees
along the nature strips in nearby streets.
The electricity wires must be protected
No Bushfires for Victoria!

I hear the scream of dying trees,
as cruel chainsaw teeth bite deep.
I close my eyes, but can’t close my ears.
Persistent wailing and spluttering,
grumbling, howling and whining.

The sap seeps slowly at first,
oozes thicker, spurting and sticky
covering the wicked teeth
but failing to clog and stop
the cuts slicing deeper into flesh.

Trees made the news today,
but many people didn’t notice.
These givers of life, providers of shelter,
courageous ancient sentinels
abused, and destroyed once again.

Trees grow towards the sun
while roots remain firmly planted.
An example to us all –
reach for the sky but remain
grounded. Attached to this earth.

We ignore their example and
ultimately it will be our loss.
Taken for granted, more than a news item
trees should be appreciated and valued
We can reach for the sky together.

I wake up each morning and look across the road and can see and hear the magpies and noisy miners in conversation planning their day in the giant gum trees. Depending on the season, they might be joined by wattlebirds and lorikeets or a couple of vocal r avens.

In the evening possums hitch a ride on the electricity wires and visit me.

Imagine the shock when after workers for the Level Crossing Removal Authority trimmed the trees a few days ago, private tree loppers returned today and systematically removed the remainder of the majestic gums from the garden of the house adjacent to the railway line!

We need improved public transport and I’m glad level crossings are being removed. I have no objection to Sky Rail, but the price paid can still be upsetting. Our actions impact on others – sometimes people we don’t even know!

 

By the end of the afternoon, as I walked out to meet Jillian, the trees were gone.

trees gone

I hope most of the wonderful trees I see on my walk will remain to delight for years to come – not only for me, but for the birds, and other creatures that rely on them.

I intend to enjoy and respect their presence, and continue to record their changing shape and seasonal finery.

Thank goodness I have the foreshore and over the years, we have resisted two attempts from Windows by The Bay restaurant to expand.  It is sad that vigilance is necessary. The battle over sacrificing foreshore vegetation to widen Beach Road a running sore that polarised residents and no doubt there will be other conflicts as people’s visions differ of what makes a liveable and sustainable environment.

I hope to remain healthy enough to enjoy my walks and continue to be inspired and know despite changes, I am blessed to live here. This photograph, looking back from Parkdale towards Mordialloc taken ten years ago.

The sea a constant – wild and unpredictable, calming and healing – who knows what the next wave will bring ashore?

Rebirth.jpg

Seeking Inner Peace in Outer Mongolia

cairns 2017.jpeg

I freely admit to not being in harmony with my spirit for a long time.

I find Maya Angelou inspiring but whether experiencing delayed and complicated grief or just burn-out, a growing melancholy is difficult to shake off and so I am an expert in masking how I feel. Last year, the pretence life was okay became harder to mask.

I felt broken; fatigued and shattered.

How to fix broken me a difficult conundrum, but not new.

All my life I’ve been accused of over-thinking, being too sensitive, too serious, caring too much. Even primary school teachers wrote “highly strung” in reports when personality assessments sat beside grades.

Weary, disillusioned and disappointed in myself I wondered is it just coming to terms with ageing, or is existing rather than living going to be the norm?

Were the fast approaching ‘twilight years’ affecting me as they did my father who often recited the cynic’s song:

Twas always thus since childhood’s hour, I’ve seen my fondest hopes decay, I never loved a bird nor flower, than the darned thing died or flew away!”

The Physical and Metaphysical

There were physical aspects to how broken I felt.

I visited my oncologist because I wanted to come off Tamoxifen. Her reaction to my complaints about joint pain, rashes, and palpitations, “it’s not just cancer, you’ve never got over losing John…” and while writing a script for anti-depressants,  “I’ll give you these but I know you probably won’t take them…”

She was right about the pills – I didn’t fill the prescription, particularly after researching the possible side effects, mirroring some of the symptoms, which motivated me to make the appointment!

Symptoms I believed from Tamoxifen, the drug keeping my breast cancer under control.

She was also right about my grief for husband John, who I loved passionately and miss every day, but conflating that with the visceral effects of Tamoxifen didn’t help my anxiety.

When I left the specialist’s rooms that day, instead of catching the bus, I walked for an hour, my mind in overdrive and future uncertain.

Decisions to make.

To ignore the prescription for anti-depressants and also come off Tamoxifen. (And when the most worrying physical symptoms disappeared, I was vindicated!)

But what to do about the cloud of depression shadowing me most of my life and now threatening thunderstorm proportions?

Throwing myself into work whether paid or volunteer often an effective distraction. I’ve always been a great believer in focusing and helping others as a way of minimising personal problems.

It sometimes works, but deep down distraction is the right word. Also, it’s a solution that’s often temporary.

Peter Sarstedt in his hit song of the ’60s sang:

But where do you go to my lovely
When you’re alone in your bed
Tell me the thoughts that surround you
I want to look inside your head

No one would want to look inside my head – not even me! Where is the off button?!

The 24hour news cycle and social media with its emphasis on tragedies take a toll on heart and soul too. There are always external factors as well as internal factors feeding melancholia and as a person interested in politics and social justice I know the constant barrage has made it worse.

Going Travelling instead of Going to Pieces

Active solution?

By planning a holiday to places on my bucket list, I hoped travelling and a rest from the everyday would give time to think and heal.

I sent an email to Flower Travel, Trans Siberian journey specialists, plus emails to friends and relatives overseas in the UK, a place not visited in 20 years. I decided to travel where I’d never been and tour Orkney and Shetland.

“The discipline of writing something down is the first step toward making it happen.”

Lee Iacocca

I plundered superannuation and took a term off from teaching…

As a solo traveller, there would be plenty of time for soul-searching, especially visiting Mongolia and Siberia, places as different from my lifestyle as the proverbial ‘chalk and cheese’!

Day Two In Mongolia

I’m scheduled to stay in a traditional ger at Buuviet Ger Camp, Terelj National Park, 65 kilometres northeast of Ulaanbaatar.

The ideal opportunity, at the beginning of my travels, to start that soul searching and a walk at dusk provides time to be quiet and still.

dusk in ger camp - poem.jpg
Dusk in the Ger Camp

“The National Park Gorkhi-Terelj includes the southern Khentil mountain range. Terelj is one of the protected areas most frequently visited. It offers naturally beautiful scenery, interesting rock formations and is covered by forests, wetlands and alpine tundra…”

entrance to campsign to camp

The Buuviet Ger Camp is open all year round and the information listed facilities to include:  220 V electricity, deep well artesian water, 70 gers with guest beds for overnight stay, 16-bed winter houses, ger restaurant with seating for 60 and information ger with Mongolian national games, modern bar in a ger, souvenir shop, fully equipped restrooms (summer only) and an outside BBQ and bar – not the isolated wilderness some may think!

However, I’m not the first and won’t be the last traveller to discover a discrepancy in what is advertised and reality, but I didn’t mind. In fact, the experience probably more authentic because of it. I wasn’t looking for “Glamping” as one travel site described: 

Go glamping

Sleeping in a rough-and-ready Mongolian ger is a quintessential grassland experience, but a growing number of tour operators are establishing sustainable, nomad-run ger camps that target the posh adventurer with innovative luxuries. Nomadic Journeys operates ger camps at pristine wilderness sites that feature heated eco-showers, hand-painted beds with thick yak’s wool blankets, and even a sauna ger. For the truly adventurous, they’ll open up an airstrip and fly people into the great Mongolian void – 365 degrees of pristine emptiness, and it’s all yours.

The spacious and comfortable ger was cosy and I eventually settled to sleep… although that was a long time coming…

Staring at the shadows from the starlight shining through the roof, I relived the minutiae of the day, tortured myself with past imperfect scenarios, tried to imagine perfect scenarios…

… the wee hours never easy for what my mother called ‘an overactive brain‘. Nighttime rarely a relief from the busyness of the day.

The silence in the ger “deafening’! There are none of the sounds I’m used to – machinery, cars, trains, footsteps on pavements, crickets, pigeons cooing, sirens, dogs barking….

At times the wind whistles through the roof but I could be the only person on earth although the faint buzz of security cameras and an outside light just discernible. Once I heard distant barking – dogs warning of wolves?

But there was no insect noises or hum of an electricity generator. The ger cocoon the perfect place for ‘endless musings and ramblings, recriminations and replayed conversations.’

The writing ‘mojo’ I hoped to rekindle struggled to appear, and energy absent, but regrets, remorse, resentment, recriminations, fears, fantasies, grief and even giggles took their turn before I gradually dropped off to sleep!

When we arrived at the camp, snow still lay on the ground. The weather of the last few days just beginning to allow for maintenance and preparation for the spring and summer tourist season.

Being the only guest, I understood why the electricity (stored in batteries) was not switched on, and the ‘fully equipped restrooms” still shrouded and protected from winter.

It was pleasing to see signs explaining efforts to marry environmental awareness with tourism.

A love of travel motivates me, but I readily admit it’s a privilege and carry first world guilt about my environmental footprint.

Cultivating an attitude of neutrality, I consider most people to have good intentions, are not out to be bad or destructive.  The majority are kind and helpful and so I do my best to be trusting, suppress suspicion and hesitation, and extend friendship.

There are myriad cultural and ethnic stereotypes promoted in movies, comedy routines, novels, and plays. Lazy writers thrive on stereotypes and cliches and the success of soap operas and pulp fiction show there is a market. But I hope to absorb and capture the vibrant and fascinating Mongolia that has stunned me, albeit with only two days of experience.

I prefer to take people as I find them and form opinions based on personal experience and observation.

A large sign explained Buuviet Camp’s mission to be an “eco-camp”:

Idopt a tree

Buuveit camp of Tsolmon Travel LLC was nominated and certified as the first “Eco Camp” today we are working to bring you close to nature by developing beautiful garden at our camp.

Goal:

  • save and preserve the endangered species of plants, trees and shrubbery
  • increase the number by replanting
  • provide botanical education

Our garden is dedicated to the collection, cultivation and display of wide range of plants from Gorkhi Terelj National park and Khan Khentii Protected Area.

Thousand Trees Every YEAR
Please join our effort to give back to the nature by planting trees and flowers any help would be appreciated
For more info please ask the camp manager.

I saw the area mapped out for a vegetable and fruit garden, still empty of growth because of winter.  However, Jemina, my host excited at seeing a tiny shoot of green and bent down to examine it.  New growth means his horses and cattle will have more feed. 

Traditionally, Mongolian nomads raise five species of livestock known as the five muzzles or snouts: horses, cows or yaks, sheep, goats, and camels. Reindeer are raised by the Tsaatan people who live in the northwest areas around the lake Khovsgol bordering Russian Siberia. 

A life of wrestling with the vagaries of the seasons evident on Jemina’s face, skin, and wiry body. This vast almost limitless space, a tough place in winter.

first sign pf spring

I saw living proof that Mongolia is one of the least densely populated countries on earth when standing in the centre of camp:

  • no sight or sound of another person,
  • a panorama of unfolding pastures, dusty paddocks,
  • and hilly peaks draped with snow.

A wonderful gift to experience, I’m in awe at this wilderness and appreciate the lifestyle enjoyed in Mordialloc.

Ada had been worried and apologetic about some facilities being closed. But why would I mind using the squat toilet on the edge of the site, or top and tailing at the wash basin rigged to be fed by a bucket of water?

I thought of an old Monty Python skit ( Four Yorkshiremen) – these facilities luxury indeed compared to how some people have to live, without shelter, clean water or decent food!

Because of the nomadic lifestyle and the climate, Mongolians have always played a variety of games and are skilful horse riders.  I saw where outdoor games could be played but had to make do reading about the cultural heritage developed over many centuries to suit nomadic life.

Likewise, the restaurant and other communal buildings, BBQ and bar remained closed for my one night, but I could imagine the delight of tourists in peak season.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After a wander around and peeking in windows, I’m sure would-be guests during peak tourist season could consider it ‘glamping’!

Looking at my notebook, I read “has it only been a day since I flew into Mongolia?”

“I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.”

Carl Sagan

An Awakening of the Land – and Me…
Mairi Neil

From the plane, I spy brown, dry earth
and undulating hills
peaks dotted with snow
the iced mountains and streaked steppes
like shattered shards of glass
nomadic houses – gers
could be iced buns or polka dots
instead of circles of civilisation
and isolation

The plane manoeuvres around mountains
and patchwork dark green shadows
forest in a land famous for no trees
Thick cloud envelops
accompanied by an ominous grunt…
the landing gear drops
we hover over mountains
panda seat display announces
two degrees on the ground

river tributaries appear
flowing free
or perhaps just melting snow
as isolated gers multiply
blend to suburbs of Ulaanbaatar…

A long straight highway glimpsed
high-rise buildings glint in sunlight
seat upright, seat belt fastened
alert and nervous
I anticipate the adventure ahead…

 

me with hosts at ger camp
Jemina and daughter Aruna run the Buuviet Ger Camp

Notes By Candlelight…1

Tonight I’m in a ger – the only guest in the village because winter is not quite over. Aruna and her father Jemina run the place. Although only 22 years old, Aruna is extremely competent. She had to step up when her mother died 6 years ago. Her father is 59. An older brother and sister have moved away with their own families.

Aruna told me she has a pony, also books and television as relaxation and entertainment. She writes in her journal. Like young people everywhere she has a mobile phone and loves the Internet.

Our conversations stilted and difficult because of the language barrier. How I wished we could communicate better – I’d love to know what she reads and writes… and of her dreams for the future.

I can imagine how busy it will be in the summer – a lot of work for a young woman. I feel guilty at a fleeting moment of regret that the new washing and toilet facilities are not operational. No luxury hotel comforts for me. Not even electricity in the ger because it’s not worth connecting the battery for just one guest.

On the plus side, I’m experiencing a more traditional lifestyle as I read by candlelight, use the squat toilet, and sponge myself down at the tiny sink with water from a bucket!

I told Heidi at Flower Travel I wasn’t “precious” so in modern day vernacular I’m “sucking it up”!

When we migrated to Australia in 1962, the house we rented for four years had no septic tank or sewer. We trekked down to the bottom of the backyard day or night and used the ridiculously named “dry toilet” or dunny in Aussie vernacular. (My father and brothers often peeing in the bushes or ‘by the lemon tree’!)

The pan emptied each week by the “night man,” who actually came during the day. And what a grump he was too, but with such a “shit” job, no wonder!

My Aussie Childhood
Mairi Neil

I grew up at Croydon
when the bush was thick around,
milk and bread delivered
to a tuneful clip-clop sound

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

Streets were mainly dirt tracks,
collection of potholes and clay,
most people walked or cycled
and strangers said, ‘G’day!’

Our weatherboard house peeled
paint – the tin roof leaked too,
verandahs sagged under honeysuckle,
rooms added as the family grew.

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

Electricity only brightened inside,
so torch or candle had to suffice,
night noises from shadows in bushes,
and the smelly dunny – not nice!

The path to the toilet lined with trees
growing tall to seek the sun
but in the scary, dark cloak of night
branches became arms from which to run.

But during the day, our block was heaven
definitely a children’s Adventureland
blue tongues, geckos, tadpoles, and frogs
all shared my world so grand.

A snake was the greatest danger
or a bull ant bite on the toe,
a rule carefree wonderful time –
my rose-coloured glasses show!

Notes By Candlelight…2

More often than not it was outside squat toilets when I visited communes and factories and some tourist attractions in China in 1979 – the unforgettable smell of human waste reminiscent of the latrines we dug at girl guide camps.

That ‘farmyard’ smell triggers many memories just as staring at the flickering candle flame does!

Sipping a cup of Nerada tea I’ve brought from Australia I wonder how many others have sat in this ger?

The teabags and a tube of Vegemite brought along as emergency rations. A cup of tea does wonders and Vegemite on bread or cracker biscuits as good as a meal!

Deep breaths and I imagine the eucalypts in the garden at Mordialloc, the sweet smell of Mary Jane’s favourite incense that permeates the hall, the smoothness of Aurora’s fur as she cuddles me each night.

Will this trip invigorate me or just emphasise my aloneness – or make me lonely ?

A big drawback of solo travel – not having someone to talk over the day’s experiences – the joys, upsets… the wonder.

My first published poem in the form of a bookmark resulted from a writing workshop where the teacher lit a candle in the centre of the table and told us to pause, reflect and write…

is it just tiredness or feeling overwhelmed that is blocking inspiration tonight?

There were several hours to walk and explore the camp and beyond. I discovered a prayer site of shaman ritual. Shamanism deeply rooted in nomadic Mongolia and lives happily with Buddhism. You often see the circles and cairns where rituals have taken or will take place and memorial stupas.

People ask to be healed, for good crops or to do well in an exam or job interview – many reasons to thank the gods – and ask for guidance from ancestors.

Buddhism and Shamanism coexist in Mongolia and are often interconnected. 

Stalin’s purges led to religious orders being decimated. At the time 25% of the male population were Buddhist priests so you can see why he considered them a threat and you can also understand why people clung to shamanism. 

In the solitude, I felt relaxed, daylight drifted away as a veil of serenity fell.  I discovered a spiritual sanctuary amidst ancient stones. I could be sitting in an empty church – sitting quietly in contemplation without sermons or fuss.

The rocks materialising into shapes –  eyes, faces, figures – as if ancient folk still live.

Three monks in their cowls with heads bent in prayer, a mother, and her child, a grandparent squatting with a child leaning on his shoulder; animals too – crouching, lying, poised and cowed.

Who comes here? Is the discarded bottle Jemina’s? Is this where he comes to grieve? Or do people gather for spiritual salvation? 

Secret cavities leading to where? Did Mankind begin here? Do ancient souls still hover?

I see brown open landscape, miles of emptiness
I hear the cry of a crow – a kite circles
I smell aromatic herbs and woodsmoke
I taste the tang of unfamiliar meat sauces from dinner
I touch textured rock scarred by time and weather

I imagine the endless universe… the circle of life

ger camp from hill.jpg

There are only two faces to existence – birth and death –
and life survives them both, just so sunrise and sunset
are not essentially different:
it all depends on whether one is facing east or west.

Joy Mills, Release into Light

Nature called…

The toilet was far enough away to be disconcerting in the dark even although I had a torch.

There were holes and uneven ground caused by the marmots coming out of hibernation and despite knowing I was the only one booked into the camp, a walk across open land amongst shadows and the silhouettes of buildings, conjured the fearful (although unfounded) sensation that people were watching, perhaps even wishing me harm! 

Imagination a curse at times and never more so in a strange place in the dark.

No wonder I took Ada’s suggestion and snuck behind the tent and peed – it was about 3 or 4 am, absolutely freezing, the only sound my stream of urine scalding and steaming tufts of dead grass and melting thick frost.

Of course, I did have a middle-class moment – what if Jemina was up and about? But that was fleeting and made me smile at my own ridiculous thoughts.

What about ticks?

Ada told me a story about her friend being bitten on the head and contracting Lyme Disease. It was tick season and according to Ada, they love the wind and your hair, but will also go up your leg.  I dutifully wore hat, scarf, and boots when outside.

Fear made me check the bedclothes and the wheels of my luggage – just in case!  When a fly got through the door with me, I watched where it flew as if an enemy ready to attack. What a relief to see it leave via the circular gap in the roof dome. 

No windows in the ger but starlight, moonlight, sunlight, first light, all through the hole in the roof for the chimney.

And what about wolves? The wolf pelt in the corner of the office a stark reminder they exist.

wolf pelt

Jemina crept into the ger at midnight trying not to wake me, his torch flickering as he fed the fire with coal. He must have watched for smoke or lack of – and his timing spot on. (Ada had warned me Jemina would need to stoke the fire when we had an explanatory tour of the place before she returned to the city.)

This is bizarre, I thought as I watched his silhouette from the comfort of the bed. What will the girls think when I tell them I agreed that a man who couldn’t communicate with me, could come into my unlocked bedroom in the middle of the night, albeit to stoke the fire. (Another middle-class, western moment?)

The torchlight bright and blinding and Jemina’s face masked with a scarf against the bitter cold as he concentrated on his duties. Hunkering in front of the fire, fiddling with fuel to encourage flames, poking and rearranging with expertise. The wood stirred, flared and crackled to life.

There’s a talent to lighting a fire and heating a stove. Mum had it. So did Dad, although no surprise there because he was a fireman and later steam train driver. Not much Dad didn’t know about fires. Maybe he taught Mum, but since she was brought up on a farm in Northern Ireland where creating heat for cooking an important element in the skillset for country living, perhaps their expertise mutual.

In the modern world, push-button electric, gas or oil heaters ensure generations have no idea how to make or regulate a wood or coal fire.

  • Before John and I renovated our home in Mordialloc, the only hot water came from a wood-burning Raeburn stove. Every weekend John sat for hours in the shed chopping enough kindling for me to use during the week. When Anne came along, it was easier to boil kettles for her baby baths. I recall the joy of instant hot water when a gas hot water service installed.
  • I  remember my parents spreading a newspaper over the fireplace in Scotland to block out air (except for what came down the chimney or ‘lum’ as we called it) until kindling caught. I can see and smell sandalwood tapers used to light the fire – a present from a childless aunt who could afford to travel to exotic places.
  • Images of the coal man surface – heaving and emptying a large hessian bag full of coal into a bunker next to the kitchen. The smell of lanolin, the pink barrier cream Mum massaged into her hands for protection before she handled the coal, and set the fire.

As I skipped down memory lane, Jemina gave the fire his complete attention, but when he realised I was awake, he mimed that he’d return at 2.00am.

Earlier in the evening, the inside of the ger became unpleasantly hot – the coal and wood heater did too good a job in the well-insulated, enclosed space so I mimed to Jemina not to bother returning; I’d be warm enough.

He nodded, and before leaving placed a bucket near my bed.  I assumed it was to pee in if needed.

Jemina crab-walked to the door and braved the cold. I hoped, he understood I didn’t want to be disturbed at 2.00 am. The door of the ger tiny, and crouching definitely the best way to get in and out or earn a bump on the head like me when I forgot to duck coming back in after my peeing expedition!

The fire nearly out so I rekindled the flames and added more wood. I wonder if Jemina is watching for smoke from his ger…

A traditional yurt (from the Turkic languages) or ger (Mongolian) is a portable, round tent covered with skins or felt and used as a dwelling by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia.

Traditional gers consist of an expanding wooden circular frame carrying a felt cover. The felt is made from the wool of sheep, goat or yak and the timber, to make the external structure, is obtained by trade because of the absence of suitable trees on the steppes.

Gers traditionally did not have solid doors. These fitted as camps have grown and the people don’t move as often. Traditional doors were heavy carpets or appliquéd quilts.

ger door

A Visit With A Nomadic Family

Earlier in the day, there was a quick stop with a traditional nomadic family: Mum, her son, and daughter-in-law, plus two kids of 6 and 7. A brother was visiting with his two children and another relative and her children. 

The place packed. Everyone, apart from our hostess, sitting along one side of the room while Ada, Bemba and myself, sit on the other.

A washing machine is churning because it is Sunday, the day they wash their clothes. In between entertaining us, the mother hassles the children for dirty clothes – well I assume that’s what she is saying as they search under chairs and behind boxes and produce items of clothing. The domestic tasks of parenting and managing a household universal – no translation needed!

It’s ingenious the way the ger is built, to be collapsed and packed up at least four times a year. Sometimes they only move 20-25 kilometres, other times 50 – 100 kilometres, depending on where the family’s cattle and horses graze.

This family has horses and display medals they’ve won at Naadam, the great summer festival in July.

They are Buddhist and a shrine sits next to a giant flat-screen TV, the children and some adults engrossed watching Shaun The Sheep!

A traditional musical instrument with horse handle proudly displayed, although no one plays. It sits beside a traditional saddle and ancient costume of hat and whip. They are important symbols to show pride in Mongolian culture and heritage and have been passed down through the family.

musical instrument horse handle

The various ‘sides’ of the ger are designated: woman’s area – kitchen gear (what a surprise!), a symbolic or ornamental area, sleeping area, bathing and washing area.

Gers may look the same from the outside but like our homes are different inside – this one elaborate and heavily furnished. Bright carpets insulate the walls as well as woven hangings.

As an honoured guest, I’m given milky tea swirled in a large steel basin. Milk drained – I have no idea if it was from a horse, yak, cow, goat or sheep. They use whatever is available and make milk, cream, butter, cheese, and yoghurt.

 sweet tea in ger

I ate little round shaped bites like doughnuts, the other plate is dried yoghurt, tasty but so hard you need strong teeth. A sweet/salty butter treat. Mixing salt and sugar common here. The children suck on slices of dried butter as if icy poles.

The tea an acquired taste – sweet – and leaving an aftertaste. Since teenage, I’ve preferred unsweetened black tea and because Ada knew what to expect she asked the hostess to pour only half a cup for me. 

Not wanting to offend, I drink the tea and taste everything offered. Taking food with an acquired taste, not something I cheerfully volunteer for. I’m not an adventurous eater and rarely eat out, rather I eat to live, not live to eat and never watch cooking shows currently popular on television.

There were plenty of smiles and friendly looks and my visit is an income stream for the family, especially in winter when there are not a lot of alternatives.

When they settle in an area like the National Park there is a government school closer to town and the children board there. When I visited, it was the week of school holidays a time when lots of families visit each other. (Not that different from us really.)

To the Mongols, the family unit is everything.

Having to communicate through Ada limiting and because it was a special and busy family day, I felt like an intruder and didn’t want to subject our hostess with twenty questions.

The children too interested in the television to care about visitors, but one woman (family, neighbour?) never took her eyes off me for the half hour or so of our visit. Her intense stare disconcerting and when we left, I could hear daughter, Mary Jane’s voice, “Well, that was awkward!

On reflection, despite the generous hospitality, it was indeed! Perhaps a group visiting makes the dynamics different or maybe I just wasn’t prepared for all the distractions under one roof – this is where having a separate room for guests may have advantages.

Getting to know someone and being invited to their home different to this organised visit. I remember experiencing the same embarrassed reaction after a visit to a commune in China. It just seemed a discourteous intrusion – maybe if it had been a longer visit, more relaxed and we could communicate better I wouldn’t feel so bad.

However, in the morning, all negative feelings disappeared as I lay in bed trying to identify sounds –

Dawn

‘Peeho, peeho’ the call of a bird?
Persistent and guttural like a pigeon but not ‘coo coo’
Silence after 30 seconds.
A soft whish, swish – flapping?
A peek outside –
an eagle or kite swooping, catching breakfast
an unlucky marmot fails to escape
a magical Mongolian moment I won’t forget!

Despite a disturbed night and strange bed, I feel relaxed… a step towards serenity and inner peace?

Wistful Wandering and Poetic Pondering – Words Wile The Time Away.

Cairns August 2017.jpeg

Travelling to and from work by train is often my writing time or time to pause, observe and reflect on life.

My notebook full of ideas scrawled as one line reminders or thoughts detailed in partial stories or poems (some may say doggerel).

I write down ideas for prompts for the class – like examining our hands – physically, emotionally, and historically.

Most people will be surprised how many stories they can write about their own hands (or the hands of family or friends). Hands change as you age and activities or abilities can increase or decrease.

Hands
Mairi Neil 2017

These hands fumble now
where they once achieved with ease
buttons now boulders,
zips an effort,
Velcro fasteners? Oh, yes, please!

What are those raised veins saying –
the lumpy knuckles too
wedding ring too tight, abandoned
more than the veins are blue.

In the past, skin smooth and soft
and these hands were strong
a past of music, craft, and toddlers
weakness didn’t belong…

These hands feeble now
where once they achieved with ease
piano, guitar, sewing, knitting…
house renovations a breeze

Scarred from work and accidents
sun damaged and skin dry
weakened grip and suspect skill
they’ve earned a rest, I sigh.

But wait, these hands still toil
a means to feed my passion
pens replaced with keypad
writing never out of fashion.

These trusted hands a part of me
what stories they can tell
Ignoring arthritic pain and age
I’ll write a memoir to sell!

Mairi-Neil-2-Mums-large-print-bible.jpg

I’ve written about my mother’s hands for the Women’s Memoir website, USA and took a photograph of her holding a large print Bible because her Christian faith sustained her throughout her life especially in times of grief.

When my Dad was dying, I sat by his bedside holding his hands and reflecting on all the jobs he’d done since entering the workforce, but particularly those taken to improve our lives when we migrated to Australia from Scotland.

Inspiration and Triggers Everywhere

I’m interested in politics, current affairs, and world events. In this era of 24-hour news cycle and social media, it’s difficult to switch off. 

Some days worse than others, some topics too hard to ignore – especially regarding Donald Trump, who so often dominates the headlines.

trumpUAe

That Wall To be Built
Mairi Neil 2017

Humpty Trumpfy wanted a wall
keep Mexicans out, his rallying call
all the white supremacists and the KKK
crawled from under their rocks to have a say.

The Grand ol’ Master, David Duke
his supporters parading as men
marched into Charlottesville one day
but were chased back out again.

Humpty Trumpfy got a bigly shock
even supporters did their block
appalled to see racist rhetoric at work
and their POTUS such a dumb jerk

Humpty Trumpfy wants adulation
each media mention a celebration
his leadership skills account for naught
allegiances intimidated or they’re bought

Humpty Trumpfy will have a great fall
decent people will dismantle the wall
the empty slogans  filling empty heads
disappear from our screens like The Walking Dead

 

Pigeon 2 Bentleigh Station.jpg
This pigeon poised and alert at Bentleigh Station

We take things for granted on a daily basis, always with the assumption that whenever we need something, it will be there. Sometimes we don’t notice small changes, only the dramatic ones.

The number of apartments, townhouses, and units being built has changed the demographics of Mordialloc where I’ve lived for 33 years.

One of the many Real Estate Agents who rings regularly trying to convince me to sell up said there has been a 60% increase in young couples and families buying into the area. They have moved here because of the charm of Mordialloc’s seaside village atmosphere – ironically the removal of stand alone houses and the increased density of development has put that charm under threat!

C’est la vie…

My negative feelings about the “over” development of Mordialloc remind me of a song by Joni Mitchell, one of my favourite artists:

Big Yellow Taxi

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
A dollar and a half to see ’em
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And they put up a parking lot

Hey farmer farmer
Put away that D.D.T. now
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees
Please
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Late last night
I heard the screen door slam
And a big yellow taxi
Took away my old man
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Songwriters: MITCHELL, JONI
Big Yellow Taxi lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Crazy Crow Music / Siquomb Music Publishing

tiger mural mordi station.jpg
mural near Mordi Station

When I returned recently from travelling overseas, I noticed a new mural on a wall in the carpark behind the dentist I visit in Main Street Mordialloc. I mentioned the colourful art work to my daughter,

“When did that go up?”

“Not, sure.”

“What was there before?”

“I think it was cartoon characters of the 90s,” MaryJane said, but neither of us really sure, yet we walk along the path to the railway station almost daily!

Maybe we’ll remember this artwork if it changes… or maybe not. Taking things and people for granted, a common failure too many of us have and the saying, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,’ sadly true.

Live In The Moment Good Advice Too

 

download
C. × crocosmiiflora hybrid an invasive introduced species in Australia

Thankfully, I enjoy my job teaching creative writing because like the train travel, I have the opportunity to write. Whatever topic I plan for my students, I set myself.

On Tuesday afternoon at Godfrey Street, Bentleigh last week, a student Lena suddenly pointed out the window. We turned to watch a beautiful Noisy Miner land on a clump of Crocosmia.

noisy minor 2

The lesson reminded students to think about the power of metaphor and simile to improve their writing, particularly poetry.

I worked on a poem started on the train and then added part two, attempting to incorporate the lesson using the wonderful inspiration provided by our visitor.

Poetry in motion and fun too!

A Tuesday in August
Mairi Neil 2017

Morning

A spring-like day
warm sun is out
after hiding for awhile
she’s come out to play
to make us laugh and smile.

A new mural at Mordi Station
catches the eyes of passersby
painted while I’ve been away
A tiger feisty and bright
no room for blues today.

I load some Myki Money
before the train arrives
slip coins into the slot
train’s on time, a win
a happy day my lot!

It is indeed a wonderful world
dear Satchmo got it right
when a warm sun shines
the uplifting joy spreads
to banish worry lines.

Redolent roses perfume paths
camellias bud and delight
enjoy each moment of warmth
‘cos too soon, it will be night.

Afternoon

With a swoop, you arrive
an empty vessel needing a refill
balancing on trembling bells

to sup on nectar deliciously sweet
a  sight not to be missed
a pleasant distraction and inspiration

A Noisy Miner unusually silent
obedient child obeying the Golden Rule –
don’t speak with your mouth full!

Sucking goodness from crocosmia
a lubrication for daily performances
through welcome orange straws

an opera singer turned acrobat
pausing for tasty lunch on the wing
unaware of the Paparazzi nearby.

Wikipedia has information about both the invasive plant and the bird but please see comment below from friend and mentor in all things Aussie Bush to set the record straight in:

Crocosmias are grown worldwide, and more than 400 cultivars have been produced. Some hybrids have become invasive species, especially C. × crocosmiiflora hybrids, which are invasive in the UK, New Zealand, the American Pacific Northwest, and probably elsewhere.

The Noisy Miner feeds on nectar, fruit and insects. In keeping with its highly social nature, the Noisy Miner usually feeds in large groups.

Perhaps there’s a story behind our lone (lonely?) bird – I’ll leave that for you to compose!

Happy writing –

Time Traveller – Over Sixty, Solo and Sanguine

travel diary cover.jpg

I returned to work on Tuesday and of course, my writing students wanted to know how my trip went likewise friends and family.

I’ve been overseas for 96 days – a whole term – and as I return to timetables and responsibilities the best way of sharing such an amazing trip is writing about it.

The reflections won’t be chronological or a travelogue but flashbacks and memories in the form of anecdotes, poems and essays. They’ll be triggered by words, sounds, smells, tastes, events, people, postcards and photographs (I took too many!) and whatever else inspires me.

the-world-is-a-book-researching-your-novel-use-Google-Maps-242x300.jpg

Where did I Go? 

  • I flew to Mongolia and travelled the Trans Siberian Railway to Helsinki and then London – a journey that’s been on my bucket list for years.
  • I visited family and old friends in England staying in London, Cirencester in the Cotswolds and Colchester, another town with strong links to Roman times. I spent time in Barnes, Bath, Bibury, Burford and Bourton-0n-The-Water and other places with names beginning with a different letter of the alphabet!
  • I visited friends and family in Scotland:  Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Renton and Cardross and surrounding localities like Inverurie, Loch Lomond, Loch Carron, Rhu, Helensburgh, Oban, Plockton, Inverness, Culloden and Falkirk.
  • I visited the Isles of Skye and Arran researching family history and revisiting my own past.
  • I toured Orkney and  Shetland islands -to cross another item off my bucket list.
Nick's drawing for me
A gift to me from Nick, a young tattoo artist my daughter met in London.  Born in France, Mexican mother, father unknown, he considers himself a citizen of the world. The words “where do we come from”  poignant and his talent awesome.

Why?

I could be flippant and say ‘why not?’ however, that wouldn’t be helpful writing this blog post or to those reading it.

Fulfilling several travel dreams high on the list of answers.

(I blame my father for my wanderlust. He bought a set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedias when I was seven years old. The ten volumes captivated and fascinated. Reading chapters sowed seeds of restlessness and cultivated a desire for knowledge and adventure. )

Arthur Mee's Chidren's Encyclopedia.jpg

I like challenging myself to ignore limits of ageing and osteoarthritis and I wanted to regain the confidence lost after my mastectomy.  As my baggage label announced ‘adventure before dementia’ – the fear of that disease ever-present since my Dad’s diagnosis and death.

Life had become predictable and enthusiasm for writing projects disappeared. I feared my teaching was stale. A change was needed,  echoing Gough Whitlam’s campaign, it was time.

Time to introduce some excitement, step into the unknown, travel to different time zones, open up to new experiences and ways of thinking.

Ignore the negativity and prove to myself and others that the world has more people with good intentions and good in their hearts than the constant sensational news reports would have us believe.

Iona Dawn photo Joce watson.jpg

How To Survive Strange Beds

Mairi Neil July 2017

‘to sleep perchance to dream…’

Toss and turn, turn and toss
an uncomfortable trampoline
too narrow mattress  or oversized
tangled in unfamiliar sheets
repress a tortured scream
as thoughts unbidden creep
a monstrous murky mist
is the bedding clean?

Facebook flickers, Twitter tweets,
parading a plague of bed bugs
supported by a stream of
suited and serious newsreaders
backdropped by dinosaur-sized bugs
horror story feeders
hidden cameras reveal
cleaners who don’t clean.

Visa-less suitcases
dragged internationally
passport checks evaded
no fear of armed border guards
x-ray machines and scanners
no match for expert subterfuge
who sees intestinal worms
bed bugs, or flea circuses?

Counting sheep to sleep
but head hits
brick pillow or fluffy mountain
Never an in-between
too hot  too cold  too salty
the cultural story we know
Air-conditioning? Heater? Open window?
Ah, fresh air!

Silence is golden
until jet engines roar
jumbled voices amplify
motor mayhem, frequent footsteps
a cacophony of chaos
thin walls, rattling doors
barking dogs prowling cats
jet-lagged overactive brain…

Insomnia insinuates interrupts
imagines home
the comfort zone of relaxation
to sleep perchance to dream
of travel!

I wrote this poem in class after an example in an 11-part primer on writing contemporary poetry, available online from Mslexia Magazine.

Your subject will never be new – it’s all been done before. But a contemporary poem must offer a fresh take on its theme. You need to surprise your reader and force them to look at the world in a new way. You can do this by creating some frisson in your language, with a startling metaphor or unusual syntax. Or you can approach the topic from an oblique or unexpected angle.

Linda France, Mslexia’s Poetry Advisor 1999-2005

I’m not sure if I succeeded the way Linda France would approve but one of the complaints/comments made to me and by me was having to adjust (or not) to ‘strange’ beds. And one of the wonderful delights of returning home was the familiarity and comfort of my own bed where of course I dream of travelling!

It may be a first world problem or middle-class obsession but the fear of ‘picking up something’, whether it’s skin irritations, tinea or gastro, a common topic of conversation among seasoned travellers and casual tourists.

I exploited these fears in my poem, however, I never had to worry at any time in my recent travels despite sharing berths on trains and ferries, sleeping in a Mongolian ger, a Russian homestay, and a variety of hostels and hotels.

edith wharton quote about life.jpg

Plenty of mattresses and pillows to get used to and I’m grateful for my osteopath’s muscle massaging technique since I returned.  It helps my body get over the inevitable tossing and turning in strange beds and the hauling, lifting, packing and unpacking of luggage during the last three months.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 Poetry With A Purpose

We’re doing poetry this term at Godfrey Street as we prepare to create the annual calendar where writers respond to the work of artists at the House.

Although the calendar requires haiku or terse verse, other forms of poetry will be studied and attempted as we learn the techniques of the craft: style, imagery, lines, punctuation, rhyme, rhythm, sound, stanza, subject, title and voice.

Your Turn To Write – We Tried This In Class

Adapted from an exercise recommended by Linda France:

  • Think of something you’d like to do. Choose an activity with various stages or metaphorical layers:
    fall out of love, learn to love, find a new hobby, learn to fly like a bird, swim with dolphins, exercise in a pool, sing in a choir, sing in the shower, dance with strangers, dance like no one is watching, dance through life, meditate, lose weight, save the world, cope with bad service, use public transport, recognise happiness…

■ Give your poem a title of the form ‘How to…’ (fall out of love, swim,
etc.) and write a set of instructions, addressing the reader directly and guiding them through the process, or an experience – or whatever you want to do. This is your poem, just be authentic.
■ Use everyday language, but avoid clichés.
■ Focus closely and include lots of physical detail. Think strong VERBS, concrete NOUNS.
■ Include some reported speech.

Have fun and challenge yourself, like I did writing a poem about an aspect of travel. When I was on Orkney I discovered a wonderful photographer and poet, Edwin Rendall.

Edwin’s work appears on cards and bookmarks and this short verse coupled with his photography I particularly love – perhaps with practice, I’ll be able to create something similar to convey my memories.

clouds words & pictures Edwin Rendall Orkney.jpg

Back from Abroad – a little bruised, a lot of Jet Lag – but a return to Blogging!

cover Jane Austen notebook.jpg

Does travel broaden the mind or just weary the body?

After 96 days away, I returned to Mordialloc on July 4th, and echoing Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, I agree ‘there’s no place like home.’

flowers from A and MJ copy.jpgwelcome home sign copy.jpg

Certainly, no place as comfortable as your own bed and pillow! However, unlike Dorothy, returning home was more than just clicking my heels together.

The flight from London via Abu Dhabi entailed 24 hours travelling, including a two-hour stopover in the United Arab Emirates. Waiting time appeared shorter with increased security checks, a long walk to the departure gate for Melbourne flight, and a welcome cold beer and chat to a fellow passenger met on the first leg of my flight.

Laura lives in Melbourne too, loves books and writing and her journey to the UK, to trace family roots in Northern Ireland, mirrored some of my own experiences.

crowd scene London.jpg

My journey longer and more convoluted, fulfilling a teenage dream to travel the Trans-Siberian Railway and on reaching Britain visit places in my birth country not visited before.

pc from Russian Tour Company.jpg

I cover the islands of Orkney and Shetland and spent more time exploring Aberdeen and Edinburgh than on previous visits. I caught up with friends and relatives rarely seen, some never met – one cousin last encountered in 1973, plus a dear friend from high school who came to Australia as an exchange student from Japan!

I discover Colchester, Barnes and Richmond – places near London never explored the five previous sojourns to England – the last visit twenty years ago.

Adventure before Dementia copy.jpg 

Another world ago – John was alive, I was younger and my girls were children …

This solo trip could not be more different from the outset. The luggage tag a girlfriend gave me partly true!

But unlike past travels I not only planned the journey but hoped the process, the places visited, the people met and paying attention to the details and events along the way would help me rediscover a joy in writing – not just recording or reporting.  

  • I need to discover a purpose more than the journey or destination. 
  • I want to write the way I encourage my students to write.
  • I hope to produce something worth reading.
  • I want to leave a legacy for my daughters.
  • I need to know if random notes, fragments of thoughts, dreams, ideas and triggered memories could mean something and give meaning to not only this journey but others taken.

sitting by the water gives time to think copy.jpg

For some time now I’ve felt a fraud, exhorting others to polish and publish their writing while mine could not even light a fire under kindling, let alone interest a reader.

I needed to regain enthusiasm and originality. I needed the energy and desire to finish pieces of writing gathering dust and silverfish – or have the courage to throw it out and set my sights on another way to earn a living and pass the time!

What is the Creative Process?

The creative process is always a journey into the unknown but my imagination and writing seemed stale and predictable, mystery and miracles absent – much like my life, a little voice whispered.

Something had to change, I had to change and perhaps a term away from teaching and going ‘on the road’ to mark off more of the ‘bucket list’ compiled since John’s death and my mastectomy, the catalyst needed.

01-purple.png

As I stare at the scribbles in notebooks, browse through the thousands of photos and reflect on the past few weeks I wonder if it is enough to reignite my passion and confirm the advantages of travel … quantity is not necessarily quality!

At the moment jet lag and injuries from a fall in my last two weeks of travel tend to go with the weary body rather than broadened mind or successful return of writing mojo!

skeleton in beachside osteo copy.jpg

However, a couple of more visits to my local osteopath should sort out the physical muscles and a few more nights of decent sleep and days of walking the dog will banish the jet lag.

Today I managed to type up a page of notes and put the words into some sort of structure – retracing my steps through the words on the page I recall exactly where I was and how I felt.

It may make sense to others who travel the same questioning road.

images.jpg

 

A Pause Pondering Purpose

Mairi Neil May 2017

I choose a window table,
jam jar posie centrepiece beckoning,
the desire for scones and tea awakened
by the warm comforting aromas
drifting from a steam-filled kitchen.

The cafe noise melts and murmuring voices
from a nearby radio stir memories…
family stories merge with tales absorbed
from the relics of the ancient past
embedded in the cobbled streets walked,
the castle ruins explored, and churches
of monumental proportions visited.

The sea a grey turmoil through misty glass,
eyes imagine selkies safeguarding those
who use this highway from the islands.
So many of your countrymen seafarers –
my ancestors and your descendants.

Did your eyes focus on a distant vessel?
Did you long to leave the confines of land
or did the terror of history leave no choice?
A fat and fuzzy bumblebee attracted to the flowers
flits purposefully from Daisy to Bluebell…
perhaps that’s how it is for us all –
our destiny mapped from birth.

What explanation for my innate restlessness?
The emotion stirred by the cry of gulls,
emerging from patchwork clouds
to wheel, wander, whoosh above?
They bob and land like origami kites
captive to the wind and unpredictable sea
as sailing ships of old and ferries of today.

Salt water always the lifeblood of islands,
feeding and clothing islanders, providing jobs,
this place no different except for its past
fraught with fear, fights, flights, and elusive freedom…
Peopled by Norsemen, Gaels, Celts,
Anglo-Saxons, Spanish and more…

Strong tea melts buttered scone,
the warmth of my mother’s memory
and the radio’s jaunty Scottish tune
conspire to make me smile.
Who am I? What made me, me?
The chasing of ancestors for answers
does this path have purpose?

 

Things Are Not Always Bright And Beautiful

creepy crawly chart

Okay, I admit some of the above-mentioned creepy crawlies are beautiful (actually only the butterfly and ladybug) and I understand insects, in fact, all creatures have a place in the ecosystem, but lately there has been more of the creep factor than beauty!

spider web on fence

I’ll confess up front to an ambivalence towards spiders – a creature Australia seems to have too many of and of course, they love my old weatherboard house and surrounds.

I look out the kitchen window and the webs are there.

I walk out to the front porch and the spiders are there along with some other strange insects!

Daughter, Mary Jane complains often about the spider webs stretching from her car mirrors to the garden bed. They appear no matter where she parks in the driveway.

Daughter, Anne can sense a spider in the vicinity even if tiny and an anxiety attack is sparked. The spider must be removed before she’ll settle in a room!

One of my first memories of coming to live in Australia as a nine-year-old was sitting at the kitchen table in the old weatherboard house our family rented in Croydon. I’m not certain if it was my Dad or an older brother who casually pointed above my head at the wall and said, ‘watch out for the spider.’

We were always playing tricks on each other, so I ignored the warning until I saw my sisters and younger brother hurry from the table. I turned around in time to see a huntsman the size of a saucer scurry across the wall. Needless to say, I slithered under the table and followed the others outside.

ausie spider chart FB

Ironically, we became immune to some of the spiders in the ‘old house’ to the extent that one lived above the old wood stove at my dad’s behest because it kept flies at bay. We nicknamed him Oscar.

However, Mum wasn’t as benevolent and didn’t shed a tear when Oscar disappeared up the vacuum cleaner one day!

Fifty-five years later I’ve encountered plenty of spiders – Red Backs along the fenceline and White Tails inside when we renovated.

The other day Mary Jane killed a Red Back on the porch – apparently, there’s an increase of them in Melbourne because of the weather. Around 300 people are bitten every year in Australia.

In recent weeks, pest controllers have been inundated with calls from Melbournians who have spotted the spiders in their homes and gardens… .the hot weather has made them come out in force.

“This time of the year, we’ve got lovely blue skies, we’ve got some humidity and we had some rain a few days ago, so there’s plenty of food for the spiders to eat,” Simon Dixon from Exopest said.

White Tail spiders are nasty little creatures and I’ve been bitten several times. John got bitten once when we were renovating and took a severe allergic reaction.

Whitetail spiders frequently occupy Melbourne homes. They seek shelter in dark nooks and crevices and at night time they go about their business eating other spiders found lurking around the home. As they don’t spin a web to catch prey, when it comes time for them to rest, they sometimes find problematic places. Towels and toys left on the floor, curtains and bedsheets and lonesome shoes are a common hiding place. Whilst they are not vicious spiders, they will bite if feeling threatened. It’s easy to see how an unsuspecting human can quickly become the recipient of a painful venomous bite.

Common signs and symptoms of a Whitetail Spider bites include instant pain similar to a bee sting. There is redness, discomfort and swelling. Ulcerations can develop and the recipient is left open to the possibility of infection at the site. In a minority of victims, there is the potential to suffer a nasty reaction such as flue like symptoms and anaphylaxis.

While working in the garden I’ve often come across various garden varieties of spider, or rather they’ve come across me. Sometimes the bites require a visit to the doctor because of the rash or pain caused.

Like most people, I give spiders a wide berth when I can and not surprisingly they were a subject of my early poetry in Small Talk poems for children, Employ Publishing 1994.

Nature’s Web
Mairi Neil

Caring for the environment is an urgent task,
stop slaughtering wildlife, poisoning waterways,
and polluting the air – is all I ask.

However…

I may respect the right of creatures
great and small
but this doesn’t mean a universal
love for all.
I live life with minimal environmental damage
I don’t buy toxic sprays or insecticides
and in the garden rampage.
Even revolting ‘blowies’, when inside
they venture
are swatted with a plastic hand
as effective deadly censure.

But…

The one creature that has me terrified,
makes me absolutely petrified
if ever it manages to creep inside,
has eight legs and a body round
and in the most unlikely places found –
it can be small and brown, or big and black,
some can swing, some can jump…
all can crawl up your back!

‘Live and let live’ is all right in theory
but if you suffer arachnophobia
that sort of tolerance makes you teary.
I know nature is wonderful
I know nature is grand
but I’d love to be rid of ALL spiders
from this land!

I’m not the only one put off by spiders as this news item about “a sizeable spider” on a suburban train testifies.

The spider successfully annexed a set of four seats on the crowded peak-hour service, as well as two seats in the row behind that it might have been eyeing off for the extra legroom.

Funnel-web spider venom could provide stroke protection

The above headline relates to an article about research being done to prevent stroke victims from suffering brain damage.

 One of Australia’s most fearsome spiders may provide the solution to protecting stroke victims from suffering brain damage.

Researchers at The University of Queensland and Monash University have found that a protein in the DNA of the funnel-web spider’s venom shuts down an ion channel known to malfunction in brain cells after strokes.

In cell experiments, the harmless chemical (called Hi1a) protected brain cells from a toxic flood of ions unleashed after a stroke strikes.

During a stroke, a blockage stops or slows the flow of blood to an area of the brain. The brain cells, suffering from a lack of blood and oxygen during a stroke then switch to metabolic pathways that don’t rely on oxygen. This creates a condition called acidosis and the oxygen-starved regions of the brain start to become damaged and die off.

Hi1a works by blocking the acid-sensing channels in the brain.

Who would have thought it? I might have to revise my opinion of that particular creepy crawly as the article states,

Stroke is one of this country’s biggest killers and a leading cause of disability, striking someone in Australia every 10 minutes.

I’ve also experienced Beetlemania

In December 2012, the Union of Australian Women Southern branch were having their annual Brunch for Peace at the Beach. The gathering is always held on Mordialloc foreshore and as usual as a coordinator and living in Mordialloc, I made my way down early to grab a spot under the shade.

Imagine my surprise to find the place swarming with bugs.

When I arrived, I discovered our usual shady area full of thousands of copulating beetles. Where is David Attenborough when I need him, I thought.

The other women arrived and we tried to ignore the busy insects but the breeding frenzy unsettling and hard to ignore. We tried to brush an area clear but didn’t want to be responsible for reducing some part of the ecosystem’s population. We gave up and moved elsewhere.

After some research, I discovered there were swarms of beetles in suburban gardens in and around Melbourne that summer, identified by scientists as  Plague Soldier Beetles, Chauliognathus lugubris.

A native species, its common name refers to its habit of forming huge mating swarms. They can appear in such large numbers that it is not uncommon for them to weigh down the limbs of weaker plants.

Their bright colour warns off predators and they are capable of releasing distasteful chemicals and so would not make a good meal.

It was nice to know the beetles were not interested in harming humans –

    not so another more recent encounter with the insect world.

When a Bee Turns Out to be A Wasp

During an afternoon working in the garden clearing overgrown vines from the fenceline, I noticed what I thought was half a dozen bees hovering near the corner of the house.

Later in the evening, when I went outside to bring in the washing I noticed the ‘bees’ were increasing in numbers and were going under the house, almost in a straight line. On closer inspection, I was pretty sure my bees were wasps.

European-Wasp-Infographic

A phone call to a local pest control company and their prompt response confirmed my fears were worse than I realised. The busy bees were European wasps and they had started to build a nest under the house!

Removal of the creepy-crawlies was completed by two men suitably attired with protective gear and spray guns full of a natural powdered essence that killed the wasps or put them into a stupor and drove them elsewhere.

Stop Press – Ross River Fever in Frankston

Last month, the Health Minister announced that six cases of Ross River Fever, a mosquito-borne virus had been detected in Melbourne – some in Frankston – a skip and a jump from Mordialloc.

There is a state-wide outbreak.

Usually, the virus is contained to specific areas where the mosquitoes carrying the virus are found. None of the six cases had travelled to those areas.

According to Wikipedia diseases transmitted by mosquitoes also include: malaria, dengue, West Nile virus, chikungunya, yellow fever, filariasis, Japanese encephalitis, Saint Louis encephalitis, Western equine encephalitis, Eastern equine encephalitis, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, La Crosse encephalitis and Zika fever.

I remember the shock when a close friend from university, Jan Storr died from Murray Valley Encephalitis after a camping holiday. John knew this grief too because a young organiser in his Union died from the same disease.

A lot of grief from such a tiny insect…

mosquitoes-large

Are insects taking over the world?

I’m not paranoid but I’ve never had a wasp invasion before and I’ve never seen so many spiders recently which makes me wonder have insect populations increased?

A quick question to Google and I discovered this research

Urban Warming Drives Insect Pest Abundance on Street Trees

Our results provide the first evidence that heat can be a key driver of insect pest outbreaks on urban trees. Since urban warming is similar in magnitude to global warming predicted in the next 50 years, pest abundance on city trees may foreshadow widespread outbreaks as natural forests also grow warmer.

… we’re looking at a future full of tiny, deadly insects.

Though scale insects are harmless for humans and don’t conjure up the shivers the way cockroaches and mosquitos do, they might be far more harmful to the environment than these other apocalypse-loving pests. The main problem is that they attack trees, which are a crucial cornerstone of urban ecosystems.

On Quora the question was asked:

Why don’t insects who outnumber us greatly, take over the world?

The response?

What makes you think they haven’t? 

If we exterminated all insects on this planet by whatever means we could invent, we would also doom ourselves.

We rely upon insects and other invertebrates to pollinate our food crops, if we didn’t have pollinators, we’d be dead.

When something dies, invertebrates clear up the corpse. Without them, we’d be living in a fetid mess of rotting corpses, dying from diseases that make mosquito-borne malaria look like fun.

We depend upon insects, even though they are not aware of it, they do rule the world, without them, we’re goners.

Somehow this rational answer isn’t that comforting – global warming could be driving an increase in more that tree insects.

As a writer with an overactive imagination, it’s the stuff horror movies are made of.

I remember Sunday School in Scotland and lustily singing praise to ‘all creatures great and small’ where the extent of interaction with insects was earwigs and bumblebees.

All Things Bright And Beautiful
Cecil F Alexander

Chorus:
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colours,
He made their tiny wings.

The purple-headed mountains,
The river running by,
The sunset and the morning
That brightens up the sky.

The cold wind in the winter,
The pleasant summer sun,
The ripe fruits in the garden,
He made them every one.

The tall trees in the greenwood,
The meadows where we play,
The rushes by the water,
To gather every day.

He gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell
How great is God Almighty,
Who has made all things well

 I’m not sure the same praise applies living in Australia!

The Australian Museum in Sydney ranks Australia’s most dangerous animals based on the level of threat they pose, plus how likely you are to encounter one in the wild.

The honey bee is number 2 on the list and the funnel web spider is number 7!

 

The humble honey bee, which is not native to Australia, comes second on the list because it’s both common and deadly to small subset of people. Being stung by 100 or so honey bees could put anyone at risk of a fatality, but for those who are highly-allergic, even a single sting can be a life threatening situation.

The honey bee has barbed stings, so it can only sting once. The purpose of the sting is to make you never want to bother a bee ever again…

Since 1927, 14 deaths from the spider have been recorded. It’s only the male bite that has proved fatal, however.

Direct UV light will kill a funnel web, so the spiders need somewhere to hide during the day and have been known to consider a shoe a perfectly adequate location. More commonly, the spiders builds burrows under something like a pile of bricks or a log.

Whenever I go by public transport to visit my daughter Anne I pass a mural at Balaclava Station – large colourful and bright I think it represents the food chain – the insect is much too large for my liking –

Things are definitely not always bright and beautiful – do you agree?

When It’s All Right Not To Write

a day in Fitzroy gardens copy.jpg

My writing journey seems to be much like my life – unpredictable, a mystery, an uphill battle, full of sudden surprises and even miracles.

Some days there is a structure  – usually my teaching days when I write with my students. Other days, there are scribbled notes, ideas and perhaps the start of a poem or story, or just an observation as I try and harness whatever fleeting thought an image, event or overheard word has prompted.

Recently, I’ve been troubled by an inability to write what and how I want, never finishing the stories or poems – not so much losing interest but struggling to find the joy and passion.

mordi beach october 2016

Sea-Sawing 1
Mairi Neil

When I walk by the sea, I am silenced
Not by roaring waves, tumultuous surf or crying rocks
When I walk by the sea, I am silenced
Not by the lapping wavelets or squelching sand
or the whispers of an ebbing tide.
When I walk by the sea, I am silenced
by the endless mystery of oceans
by this chameleon of colour and mood
by the changing horizon of merging sea and sky
by thoughts of the insignificance of humankind
and our attempts to tame, travel, and tease
and always the awesome sea can choose not to please
When I walk by the sea, I am silenced.

Pausing The Pen

As I prepare to go on what I am calling ‘long service leave’ (unpaid, unfortunately) from my writing classes, I’m hoping to rediscover my ‘mojo’ and enthusiasm for writing. I feel as stale and tired as my words as if I’m repeating myself and walking in circles.

Here’s hoping a term off, and weeks of new experiences as I travel the Trans-Siberian Railway and return to Scotland, my birth country to meet up with old friends and relatives, I’ll be able to reignite lost passion and enthusiasm.

images

Tracking My Journey To Recovery

I’ll use the blog as a sort of journal to track my journey – inner thoughts as well as the outward physical events. I’ll write about the same subjects I suppose but perhaps have a fresh angle – definitely a different perspective!

Entries may be written in the moment, fragments and random happenings recorded – a different process from how I usually write. I’m a planner and outliner when it comes to publication, a worrier about whether anything I write is worth reading or if there is a mistake with research, grammar, spelling…

Become-a-writer.jpg

I’ve been writing since a teenager and I love reading good writing – all I’ve ever wanted to do is be a writer that others want to read.

However, if I’m ever to achieve that dream and finish a couple of important writing projects then radical action is required. I’ll be 64 years old in August – a bit long in the tooth to be regarded as an emerging writer and entering the age bracket conscious that time can run out!

 

gone fishing seat stony pt.jpg
A reminder of life’s fragility the last time I visited Stony Point!

 

Now for Something Completely Different

It’s time to remove myself from the comfort zone of teaching writing and helping others on their publishing journey. Breda now looks after the Mordialloc Writers’ Group – relinquishing that was a major step for me to take because I founded the group over 21 years ago – but the freedom I feel with the cliched weight off my shoulders is wonderful.

I’m going to fulfil another item on the ‘bucket list’ made after I survived a breast cancer interlude. Hopefully, there will be a few more crossed off the list in the future.

A couple of years ago, I went to Samoa and paid homage to Robert Louis Stevenson, a writer who inspired me in childhood.  Samoa, the first of travel adventures I’d dreamed about and promised to visit ‘one day’.

On this Trans-Siberian trip, a teenage dream will be realised and  I’ll pay homage to another favourite writer, Dostoevsky whose book Crime And Punishment, I regard as one of the top ten influences in my life. Like RLS and a few others, Dostoevsky gave me the desire to be a writer.

I’ll also be visiting the Orkney and Shetland islands, another long-held dream and the home of the wonderful writer and poet George Mackay-Brown.

Like Hillary Clinton – I aim high!

20160901_074055-1

When I’m in holiday mode, perhaps I’ll rediscover the joy and spontaneity I’ve lost and succumb to the mystical process of mind linking together random observations, thoughts, dreams and sudden ideas into storylines and poems.

Sea-Sawing  2
Mairi Neil

When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
heartbeat slows, breathing even, steps linger,
imagination sparked as dreams awaken.
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
shells crunch underfoot, sand soft or solid,
seagulls whirl and twirl their aerial dance.
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
blueness stretches to meet blueness or
stormy grey prances with white caps,
the horizon a promise of somewhere else.
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
worries, fears, a bad day assuaged –
this too will pass a mantra of healing and rebirth
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed.

Playfulness Is Not Out Of The Question

My first published poems were for children and I’ve always been attracted to manipulating words for fun. Perhaps my creative journey needs to return where it began!

I know poems don’t have to rhyme, in fact in some poetry circles it’s almost a criminal offence to write what they consider ‘doggerel’ aka anything with a rhyme. However, I love playing with words, love puns and absurdity.

Sea-Sawing 3
Mairi Neil

I must go down to the sea today
to see the waves and splash
I must go into the sea today
salt water will cure my rash!
The sea has healing powers –
that’s what Mum told me
so, don’t take Nature for granted –
especially the magnificent sea.

You can play in the ocean,
swim, sail, and even water ski
it’s such a wonderful playground
so, always look after the sea.
Don’t pollute the water
home to creatures great and small
because if you listen carefully
you’ll hear the mermaids call…

Here’s to rejuvenation and a renewal of purpose or perhaps I’ll return from my journey and decide to knit and craft – reminders of a lovely period in my life when the girls attended a Steiner school and we immersed our lives in all things natural.

Time will tell.

… what we call the Creative Process is in no way limited to art or to individual acts of creating something. It is in fact, a large ongoing movement in our lives, a force that has its own will and its own purpose, and which we manifest on many levels but in definite sequences… a profoundly sacred process… visible in all aspects of my life…

Burghild Nina Holzer 1993.