A Poet’s Response To The News

img_8660-1.jpg

When I describe myself as a poet, I know there will be plenty of critics and purists to suggest what I produce is not poetry, others may say it is not ‘good’ poetry.

However, creative writing is subjective, as is taste and opinion,  so I’m sticking with the label poet, defined in The New Penguin Compact Dictionary as ‘a very imaginative or sensitive person with considerable powers of expression.’

Over the years, learning and teaching a variety of poetic forms, I have built up an armoury of words to express myself, and anyone who knows me well will testify to my imagination and sensitivity – especially when it concerns social justice.

So, poet, I am.

I love poetry – because often you can be succinct and make a point with immediate impact about political or social justice issues.

Reactions can be swift and merciless, but at least it’s a reaction and often starts a much-needed conversation about important social issues.

I do miss my classes for those discussions and the input of wonderful writers with a range of views and life experiences.

Write a Poem You Say (A Triolet)
Mairi Neil

Writing poems not for the faint-hearted
Words, technique, emotions expected
Whether for the living or dear departed
Writing poems not for the faint-hearted
Sometimes it’s hard just to get started
Brain, heart and hand not connected
Writing poems not for the faint-hearted
Words, technique, emotions expected

The 24 Hour News Cycle

When I was teaching writing, I often used to write a poem at the beginning of the lesson during Splurge – the first 15-20 minutes of writing time set aside to respond to a prompt or write whatever you want a la stream of consciousness.

Many times whatever was in the newspapers or other media occupied my thoughts – like a random comment made by a high profile public figure, on the public purse, who quite frankly should have kept his out-dated thoughts to himself:

#Me Too Movement 2018
Mairi Neil

Oh, my darling daughters, come listen to me, please
There’s sad news to relate –
the way you dress is a tease
Don’t you know that males can’t control their desire –
a hint of breast or thigh sets their genitals on fire?
No matter that you are children, or entering teenage
Men find you sexually attractive and may attack in rage
How you package your body –  if you dress attractively
Makes you responsible for men’s out-of-control sexuality!

’Tis sad, darling daughters evolution cannot work
exposure to feminism hasn’t made ‘man’ less of a jerk
Some men remain Neanderthal, think women are prizes,
slaves to breed – willing or unwilling –
just somewhere to plant their precious seed!
Countless ages pass, yet progress is oh, so slow
appendages, goods & chattels, sirens, servants,
maiden, wench, slut… terms many women know.

This the 21st century, intelligence and commonsense demands
social justice and equity with or without wedding bands.
Coupling, coming together, sex must always be consensual,
pleasurable and engaging – with behaviour respectful.
Sex, regardless of gender, is about a caring relationship
Not control or violence left over from Stone Age hubris!

me too image

At the moment, we have a Royal Commission into Aged Care happening in South Australia. For many who have experienced the aged care system in Australia, some of the most horrifying revelations will not be a surprise, and the testimony may trigger memories they’d rather forget.

My Dad suffered dementia and was in care for several years and as a family, we can reflect on what was good and what was bad. One brother and one sister bore the brunt of many of the crises and complaints, but all of us learnt to be alert and watchful to ensure Dad was treated with respect and care.

During their late high school and university studies, both my daughters worked part-time in the kitchen of a local aged care centre. Although considered ‘one of the better ones’, it has changed hands several times and in certain aspects needs to improve.

Monday, November 9 (A Triolet)
Mairi Neil

The ambulance left with flashing light
With palpitating heart my emotions roam
As memory stirred of the terrible night
The ambulance left with flashing light
Resuscitation an unforgettable sight
Dad alone and prone, in nursing home
The ambulance left with flashing light
With palpitating heart my emotions roam

I was privileged to have a poem about Dad’s journey published in the anthology,  Memory Weaving, supported by Manningham Council’s Community Grant Program in 2014, and a story in Stolen Moments, 2006, edited by Elizabeth Bezant and Pamela J Eaves and promoted by Alzheimer’s Australia WA, Ltd and Sue Pieters-Hawke, the daughter and carer for much-loved Hazel Hawke, who never ceased to be an advocate for improved aged care resources.

Stories and poems written from the heart can be a great barometer about what is right and what is wrong in the community. Will those with the power to change be prepared to listen and make a difference?

Will the outcome of this Royal Commission provoke the same outrage and promises to accept and act on recommendations as the Banking Royal Commission?

Stolen Years
Mairi Neil

Clovelly Cottage sounds so benign
Perhaps a cottage by the sea
Or among wild mountain thyme…
This was where my Dad ended his days
Trapped in dementia’s memory haze.
A nursing home, no more, or less
Not the worst, but not the best.

Dad’s home for seven long years,
And although a reasonable place,
Most regular visits ended in tears.
Dementia is ‘the carer’s disease’,
Family relationships often a tease.
I was Dad’s sister, long since dead
Other days, a landlady, stingy with bread.

I’d search his face and dark brown eyes
Seeking the beloved Dad I knew
And sometimes, he surprised …
A brilliant smile and ‘hello’ to greet mine
‘How are you?’ followed, ‘I’m just fine!
I shouldn’t be here, take me home today.’
Then the fog of uncertainty carried him away.

For residents to live, and not just exist
Depends on staff and activities
People to cooperate, and not resist.
Many attempts did brighten Dad’s day
Food treats, excursions, music to play.
And when his speech slowly disappeared
His response to songs alleviated some fears.

I accepted the smells of talcum and urine,
The last meal’s clinging aroma
Strong disinfectants, disguising most sins.
I accepted Dad watching Days of our Lives
Forgetting my mother, assuming other wives.
I accepted Dad staring blankly at wall or door
Drooping slack-jawed, even dribbling on floor.

But I’ll never accept all those stolen years
Of a much-loved father and Papa ––
What could have been, still causes tears.
Dad’s ‘episode’ with dementia only part
Of the wonderful man within my heart.
He lived until he was eighty-three
Leaving plenty of positive memories for me!

Pressing Political Issues

Most Australians will be aware that a Federal Election is looming and there are some issues where the major political parties differ starkly in what they see as the problems the country is facing, and the solutions they are proposing.

I hope the majority of voters will think carefully and seek as much information as they can before casting their vote. An informed choice is always better than relying on headlines, adverts and click-bait.

Distraught Democracy (A Triolet)
Mairi Neil

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

democracy.jpg

The recent vote about evacuating refugees on Manus and Nauru islands for medical reasons an example of serious misrepresentation by those who seek to demonise asylum seekers and hope for a return to the horrible campaign of ‘Stop The Boats’ and other three-word slogans that almost stopped compassion and decency as being a motivation for government policy. Our Prime Minister and others should be ashamed to stoop so low again.

Election 2016
Mairi Neil

Australians are having a vote
Malcolm and Bill both want a moat
People smugglers to shatter
‘Cos Refugees don’t matter
We’ve stopped the boats they gloat.

Turn A Blind Eye
(A Villanelle)
Mairi Neil

They float like pieces of flotsam
Fear and desperation in their eyes
Praying for the sea to calm

She hoped for God’s large palm
Would He hear desperate cries,
From floating pieces of flotsam?

The water flooded like a burst dam
Boats upended amid gasps and sighs
They prayed for the sea to calm

A boat crowded like a peak hour tram
Women and children with frightened eyes
Now floating like pieces of flotsam

A rescue boat throws some ties
Refugees human in the Captain’s eyes
No more floating pieces of flotsam
Or praying for the sea to calm.

pasted-image-2.jpg

Operation Sovereign Borders
Mairi Neil
(a found poem from Refugee Week leaflet)

Refugees and asylum seekers
wanting safety
protection
a new life
cross stormy waters
with courage
seeking justice
and a welcome
from Australian society ––
young and old.

Amazing personal stories
of darkness,
bribery,
corruption
challenges faced
uprisings survived…
Prisoners of conscience
student leaders
from Afghanistan and Burma
seeking resettlement
and freedom
seeking to celebrate and contribute.

Their hopes crushed
basic human rights violated
harsh lessons in cruelty
as the innocent
are locked up.

In limbo
on Nauru and Manus Islands
detention not freedom ––
Why?

We can do better
Stand up, Speak up
Refugees and Asylum Seekers
Welcome here!

Climate Change is Not Going Awaysk-2017_04_article_main_mobile.jpg

Business As usual in Australia
(A Found Poem)
Mairi Neil

Stunned scientists
Moved into new roles
Unrelated to their specialty
Australia, the nation driest on Earth
Shifts in rainfall but global research community
Disabled

Young climate scientists without direction
The situation depressing
Climate capability gone
Climate modelling cut

This is not about just Australia
Readings of CO2 from Mauna Loa, Hawaii, and Barrow, Alaska
Confirmation of humanity’s dominion
Over the climate.
It is mind-boggling
Grim
Australia is ground zero for climate change
1,000 positions eliminated,
Science easily commercialised

CSIRO’s management
Focus on commercially viable projects
Climate change now settled science
Basic research no longer needed

Paris last year certain
Humans are altering the planet
But Australia’s government
Isn’t serious about climate change
Business comes first!

(Words found in ‘Australia Cuts 110 Climate Scientist Jobs’, an article in Scientific American By Gayathri Vaidyanathan, ClimateWire on February 8, 2016)

Tasmania’s Beauty
Mairi Neil

Save the wilderness
from logging
Ancient trees Earth’s lungs.

Lake and hills
Reflecting pool of the future
Wilderness or resort?

Bush On Fire
Mairi Neil

The sun is dulled by a veil of cloud
Animals culled, Mother Nature a shroud
This defeated giver of life so dear
Now dried up river, its power unclear

A red threat creeping, gathering power
Creatures weeping, air rancid and sour
It dances with glee destroying obstacles with ease
Devours blade and bush, its direction a tease

Whipped and encouraged by angry wind’s collusion
The fiery menace plundered with no delusion
The sun’s conscience exploded, the cloud revealed worth
Only life-saving rain saved the scorched earth.

Haiku – Mairi Neil

Frog or toad – who knows?
No croaking from pond or lake
dooms civilisation

In a soapy swirl
of polluted waterways
purple the colour of hope

Flash Floods Not Fiction (A Haibun)
Mairi Neil

City streets awash
El Nino’s temper unleashed
Climate Change ignored

NSW, Queensland and Tasmania storm-blasted. Flooding horrendous. Cars submerged in streets, people drowned or missing. A man fishing from his balcony excites social media when the lake thirty metres from his home visits – and stays. New residents in ground level apartments, shops, and public buildings.

All life disrupted
reptiles infest the buildings
as rivers burst banks

Doctors warn of waterborne disease and the risk of bites from creatures otherwise unseen. Funnel Web spiders flushed inside, pets swept outside.

Winds howl, puff and huff
roofs wrenched from buildings and sheds
squalls strength abnormal

Storms unknown in most people’s lifetime. Sea swells surging over jetties, boats, and homes, with tsunami intent but not its reach. Was it really like this a century ago? Record keeping not an exact science.

Angry seas pummel
rocks and aged roots shaken loose
the clifftops shudder

Countryside recovering from summer bushfires, firestorms, and drought. Life sucked from weary soil, then too much water.

Fragile soil stolen
farmers tears match the deluge
Nature’s balance gone

Doomsayers shake their heads. Sacked scientists despair at self-serving politicians, the population seek soothing before resigned and resilient acceptance. Adaptation anyone?

Our planet’s life finite
Earth will return to stardust
Creation’s downside

A Wake-Up Call
Mairi Neil

The people of Longreach
Appeal to fellow Australians
You’ve forgotten us they cry
The rain has stopped
Not seen for years
The grass all withered and dry.

The people of Longreach
Appeal to fellow Australians
Do you know what it’s like here?
Drought has destroyed
Our way of life
The community we hold so dear.

The people of Longreach
Appeal to fellow Australians
Climate Change must be faced
This parched land
No longer produces
Bore water has poison laced

The people of Longreach
Are silent and so sad
Heads bowed at funeral pyre
People, cattle, farms
Now dust to dust
Their history erased by fire

The people of Longreach
Not the only community to die
The driest continent
Will shrivel and shrink
Global warming is making us fry!

So there it is folks – a poet’s response to events in the media from sexism to political gaming on refugees and aged care, to climate change and fire, flood and drought…

The Speech a PM Should Make in 2019
Mairi Neil

Men and women of Australia
And those who identify as other
There is no time to waste
You must listen to our Mother

Mother Earth, I’m referring to
The mountains, snows, and sea
The seasons, soil, and sunlight
Providing sustenance for you and me

But Mother Earth is terminally ill
Man has definitely not been kind
We’ve raped, polluted and poisoned
For wealth we craved to find

Addicted to manufactured comfort
We’ve gouged mountains into craters
Safe harbours are now wharves
To accommodate gigantic freighters.

Explosions altered landscapes
Concrete towers replacing trees
Animals hunted to extinction
Polar ice caps no longer freeze.

Climate change is not a phrase
But reality for the natural world
Global warming’s rising tides
Cities consumed as tsunamis twirl

Leaving disasters in their wake
Human structures or nature’s design
Mother Earth almost beyond healing
Unless permanent solutions we find

Climate deniers knuckle draggers
As are those mouthing ‘innovation’
Drought, bushfires, failed crops
The word should be desperation!

The time for procrastination gone
Also the sand for burying your head
Earth’s lungs struggle daily to breathe
How long before humanity is dead?

methode_times_prod_web_bin_5d619618-2d66-11e9-b50c-c6da8f614c54.jpg
school children strike for their future The Times, UK

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.