Let There be Light and Enjoy The Illuminations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dani Shapiro, NewYork Times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rituals and Reminiscing For Auld Lang Syne

Ceremonies cemented the impression that humanity, not chaos, reigned over the universe.

Brian Herbert

We’ve farewelled another year and welcomed 2016. I look back on my post this time last year and the opening paragraph still rings true:

Like many people, particularly in my age group, I wonder where the year has gone and if it’s true that it disappears more quickly the older you are!
If I still lived in Scotland I’d celebrate Hogmanay in the traditional manner http://www.scotland.org/whats-on/hogmanay/ and in years gone by I’ve kept up several of the cultural traditions, but confess to having a quiet evening at home last night and allowing my partying daughters to come home and bring in the lump of coal I left at the front door. Actually it was a briquette (a lump of compressed coal) from the family home at Croydon. Mum gave it to me to use specifically for the ‘first foot’ over the door on Hogmanay, when we moved to Mordialloc over 30 years ago.

This time of year lends itself to reflection as well as remembering cultural quirks, but because it is a ‘new’ year, it still has to unfold, be lived and stories made. I’ll continue to find inspiration and tranquility under the evening sky whether it’s walking the dog, or putting rubbish in the bins or just standing for a few minutes alone staring above at the never-ending twinkling canopy – some habits never change.
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The preparation for Hogmanay always entails cleaning the house and ridding cupboards of unnecessary clutter, tidying up the garden. Physical examples of renewal,  like a journal writer starting each day on a fresh page.

On Christmas night, we experienced the last full moon for 2015 and as Anne and I walked Aurora around the neighbourhood, I tried to capture the moon with my camera phone:

 

December 25, 2015 – Mairi Neil

The moon gleams white, luminescent,
No drifting wisps of shape-shifting cloud.
The man in the moon yet to appear
With his benign expression,
Dark, deep set eyes and
Hint of moustachioed smile.
Tonight a vibrant sky, pink-tinged
While apricot and lilac hues waft to
Colour the rooftops, soften pavements
Breathe beauty into shadows dancing
On bricks, tiles, concrete, and steel.
A flock of parrots settle among
The topmost branches of a stoic gum
Protecting a grey water tank.
Suddenly, as if a giant hand shakes the tree,
Red breasts flash and with squeals and flaps
The birds twirl through the air –
Green wings spinning like frisbees.
Each night my eyes discover something new
A colour never seen, a glorious streak across the sky
Trees dressed in forty-shades of green
A Creator’s vision this glowing orb is perhaps
Designed to magnify…

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Parrots proliferate in Mordy now – they moved in during the last drought and stayed.

In the quiet of the evening I often share significant memories of childhood and at this time of year it is New Year rituals. Family stories deserving to be heard and passed on:

In Scotland, after Mum’s frenzy of cleaning and baking, we savoured her ginger wine and blackberry wine, both non-alcoholic made from essence. How grown-up we felt, drinking ‘wine’ like the adults! (Although they were on whisky after the bells announced at midnight and Auld Lang Syne sung.)

When I returned to Scotland in 1973, at the top of the long list of items missed and to be brought from ‘the auld country’ was ginger and blackcurrant essence. I managed to procure 6 bottles from the local Co-op and Hogmanay ’74 was a good year in Croydon, Australia. A quick Google search and homesick Scots throughout the world have a similar childhood memory and taste for ‘oor ain special Hogmanay treat.’

As far back as I can remember, my parents’ parties were legendary. Not hard to do when you are part of a large family – a crowd’s already there!

Each Hogmanay, in Greenock, carpets were rolled up, Andy Stewart and Jimmy Shand records (78s, later LPs) stacked on the radiogram, and reels and jigs shook the house’s foundations. Dad’s brother, Alec and family came over from Rhu, neighbours popped in, some of Dad’s railway co-workers and even people from their St Ninian’s House Church group.

Mum’s feast prepared and eaten before midnight, included clootie dumpling (cooked in a clout /cloth) where we all fought to have a slice with the skin attached – delicious, hot or cold. There are many variations of this traditional treat:

Clootie Dumpling

250g (8oz) plain flour
125g (4oz) margarine
75g (4oz) currants
75g (4 oz) sultanas
75g (3oz) soft brown sugar (or substitute treacle)
2 lightly beaten eggs
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
I teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon bicarb soda
1 tablespoon golden syrup
3/4 cup buttermilk

(extra flour for cloth to produce the much-loved thick skin)

  • In a large bowl mix the flour, and softened margarine, fruit, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and bicarb of soda. Add the beaten eggs and syrup, then stir in sufficient buttermilk to form a soft batter.
  • Dip a pudding cloth into boiling water and sink it in a bowl large enough to hold the mixture, dredge lightly with flour and spoon in the mixture.
  • Draw the cloth together at the ends and tie tightly with string – make sure you leave room for expansion during cooking!
  • Place a saucer in the bottom of a large saucepan and lift the dumpling into the pan of boiling water and simmer for 3-4 hours.

Clootie Dumpling is usually served hot with cream, ice-cream or custard but is delicious cold, spread with butter or margarine and jam. Mum made a clootie at other celebrations throughout the year, especially for Dad’s birthday.

One memory of Hogmanay in early 1960s Scotland stands out over all others.

As usual we children were the first awake, and of course headed straight to the toilet. The bathroom/toilet was upstairs near all our bedrooms, but the door was locked. A quick head count and checking of beds and we knew it must be an adult inside. We waited.

And waited. Discreet tapping. No answer. Whispering then louder tapping and talking. Cousins awake as well as siblings. Lots of whispering and tapping. No answer.

Fear of admonition if we made a noise or woke hungover adults forgotten when desperation kicked in. The boys could go outside even if it was ‘brass monkey weather‘ but Catriona and I needed the bathroom. (Yes, all our cousins were male. Of three brothers, Dad was the only one to produce female offspring.)

We jiggled the door handle but couldn’t open the door. We peeked through the keyhole.

‘Uncle Alec’s asleep on the floor.’

‘His head’s against the toilet and his feet must be blocking the door.’

‘Why doesn’t he wake up?’

‘He’s drunk.’

‘Or dead.’

‘We better get Dad.’

We didn’t need to fetch Dad. Trying to be ‘as quiet as church mice’  we  ‘made enough noise to wake the dead’.

Dad couldn’t rouse his older brother either so one of the boys was sent up the drainpipe to climb in through the outside window and open the door. Dad helped an embarrassed Uncle Alec to bed and we had a story to share on Hogmanay for years, embedded in family history.

 

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Years later an incident in 1970s Croydon, Australia not forgotten, especially by Mum and Dad. A sizeable crowd gathered in a circle in our lounge room waiting for the clock to strike twelve. Large enough to require two bottles of whisky for the all-important dram.

Dad, the host, had his favoured drop – Teacher’s, a smooth malt. Uncle Bill had a bottle of traditional Bells.

Midnight announced, Auld lang Syne sung, the first foot (my dark-haired older sister, Catriona) welcomed over the door carrying the lump of coal. The bottles opened for everyone to receive ‘the water of life‘.

Half the room sipped and smiled, the other half looked sour or stunned. Mum’s Highland friend Christine McDonald blurted, ‘What’s this? Bloody water!’

Dad had finished pouring and gulped his whisky, which he immediately spat out. The room suddenly abuzz with more than Christine examining their glasses, re-tasting and then looking for a refill of ‘proper whisky.’  Thankfully, there were always plenty of bottles available at Scots/Irish gatherings.

An examination of the bottle of Teacher’s discovered in fine print “For Display purposes Only“.

Soon everyone joked about ‘bringing in the New Year with cold tea’ but my Father’s  laugh was restrained. As the host he felt deep embarrassment.

Dad had a mercurial temper at the best of times so Mum thought it wise she return the bottle when the shops reopened.

How it came to be sold a mystery never solved and the Manager of Supa Value Supermarket’s bottleshop offered apologies.  A replacement given without fully understanding the cultural significance of what my Father perceived as a Hogmanay horror story!

Mum slid into the car beside Dad, related the manager’s apologies and handed over the bottle of whisky. ‘Is this the right Teacher’s?’

‘As long as it’s not cold tea it’ll be fine,’ Dad said with a grin, removing the bottle from the brown paper bag, ‘there’s no such thing as bad scotch – just some are better than others.’ Almost immediately, his dark brown eyes lost their twinkle, the smile became a frown.

‘What the…’ he exploded, and passed the bottle back to Mum pointing to the label. In fine print it said, “For Display purposes Only”.

At least they hadn’t moved from the parking lot, but it was a less conciliatory Mum who returned the second bottle. She gave a very embarrassed manager ‘a piece of her mind’ and a lecture on shelving stock. The second replacement bottle checked and double-checked before she left the shop.

Apparently, lightning does strike twice!

A third funny memory of Hogmanay takes place back in Scotland, but this time in 1997. My girls and I stayed a few days with relatives in Kilmarnock. This was the first Scottish New Year the girls experienced (and to date, the only one!)

Thick snow lay outside and inside Valerie and Jim’s cosy house a party was in full swing. Most of Val and Jim’s friends had two or three children, all as excited as my girls at being allowed to stay up late to dance and play. All of them taking advantage of distracted adults, more relaxed than usual.

Midnight neared and a scramble to round up everyone spread throughout the house. Jim slipped out the back door with a lump of coal to first foot at the front. The bells came and went, Auld Lang Syne sung, the children transformed the circle into a jig. Few people were interested in filling their glasses, the music turned up a notch or two and happy chaos reigned.

We forgot about Jim.

No one heard the knocking at the door. John rang from England to wish us ‘happy new year’.

Suddenly,  Valerie asked where Jim had got to.

Oops!

Jim stood at the front door, teeth chattering and icicles forming on his slippers, ‘I knew you’d eventually remember, ‘ he said with an alcohol induced smile. Warm hugs all round and an extra kiss from Valerie made up for being abandoned.

Anne and Mary Jane still talk about that Hogmanay and giggle. It’s good to have a happy memory because unfortunately Valerie passed away in August 2014  after developing a rapidly progressive myeloma (bone cancer). By then she had two lovely girls of her own, heartbreakingly young to be left motherless.

Perhaps one day they’ll visit Australia and take away a happy Hogmanay memory from us.

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A final traditional Scots greeting for 2016:

Lang may yer lum reek – happiness, good health and the prosperity you seek!

How To Write your Life In A Poem

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The start of a new term and the probability of new people enrolling in my classes, joining students who have been attending for months or years. The need to reinvent ‘icebreakers’ or use fresh ‘getting to know you’ techniques after 15 years of teaching had me trawling the internet.

I don’t write from ideas so much as from feelings. When something touches me deeply, I write to capture or explore or understand it. This begins in my journal where it’s just for me. Then if it seems like something I want to share, I move out of my journal and start working on a legal pad. I don’t usually know what it’s going to be or who it’s for when I begin. I write to find out!

George Ella Lyon.

I found a beautiful poem by George Ella Lyon. The many templates based on her poem ideal for creative writing students to introduce themselves.  The poem is an excellent way to record the essence of your life. No remembering of dates required, no intensive research – just pure gut feelings, emotional resonance and recalling memorable images, people, things, those snatches of stories heard from relatives.

Where I’m From by George Ella Lyon, writer and teacher

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

Lyon had this to say about her poem:

In the summer of 1993, I decided to see what would happen if I made my own where-I’m-from lists, which I did, in a black and white speckled composition book. I edited them into a poem — not my usual way of working — but even when that was done I kept on making the lists. The process was too rich and too much fun to give up after only one poem. Realizing this, I decided to try it as an exercise with other writers, and it immediately took off. The list form is simple and familiar, and the question of where you are from reaches deep.

Last week, as usual, I wrote in class at the same time as my students. The template we used encourages honesty and self-reflection, but it can be profound or light-hearted. This poem should be a description of who you are for anyone who doesn’t know you – or at least give classmates a hint of your background or the present.

Students could follow the template exactly – if there were anything they felt like adding, or omitting, they could. As always, in my classes, the originality of the poems and information shared was fantastic.

Here is one of my efforts. Like George Ella Lyon, I couldn’t give up at one poem and this and others are still a work in progress…

What Made Me?
Mairi Neil

I am from ‘wakey-wakey’ for breakfast
Story time books and kisses goodnight.
From hopscotch, skipping, dress-ups,
Backyard games and street delights.

Childish rhymes and daisy chains,
From buttercup tests and bramble jars,
Walking to school or riding bicycles
Streets were for playing – not for cars!

Home deliveries by butcher and baker
Bottled milk  at home and school
Coal man blackened and scary
Clouds of dust when cellar full.

Shouts of ‘any old rags?’ recycled clothes
The buttons and zips Mum always kept
Eager friends traded their Dad’s best suit
Mothers screamed and children wept.

I am from Chinese checkers and chess
Scabby Queen and what card to choose
Roars of laughter, or tears and tantrums
Gracious winning and learning to lose

A migrant family farewelling the familiar
Adjusting to a new home across the seas
On a long ship’s voyage we acclimatised
To be from a house among gum trees.

Hot days of summer and restless nights
Long dry grass and fear of snakes
Mosquito netting to avoid nasty bites
No escaping plum and apple fights.

Blue tongue lizards and pesky possums
A boat full of tadpoles and croaking frogs
Screeching cockies and laughing kookaburras
Our house full of stray cats and dogs.

Huntsman spiders sucked up the vacuum
While cicadas chitter announcing summer
Rabbits and hares, native mice a plenty
Magpies swooping – what a bummer!

I’m from Choc Wedges and icy poles
Long summer days at Croydon Pool
Driveway tennis and park cricket
Trips up Mt Dandenong to stay cool.

I’m from high school softball and hockey
A Holden car swapped for Morris van
Holidays in army tent at Coronet Bay
Shift worker Dad visiting when he can.

I’m from triple-fronted brick veneer
Replacing dilapidated weatherboard
Coloured TV, Phillips stereo and cassettes
Furniture no longer wet when rain poured.

I’m from white weddings and sad divorces
In-laws and several nephews and nieces
Heartaches of friends and relatives
Falling apart and picking up pieces…

I’m from sick and ageing parents,
Death’s challenge not ignored
A houseful of wonderful memories
As bulldozers destroyed James Road.

In the hush of evening sunsets
Imagining childhood with closed eyes
Daily shenanigans, laughter and tears
From that ‘wakey-wakey’ surprise.

I’m from hardworking parents
Love always their motivation
Gifting me ethics and values
I’m a product of their dedication.

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Here is the WHERE I’M FROM Template:

I am from _____ (everyday thing), from ______ (product or brand name), and _____ (everyday thing).
I am from the_______(describe where you live, adjective, adjective, detail)
I am from the_______ (natural thing like: ocean, lake, flower, plant near your house or that you love), and the________(natural thing)
I am from_________(family tradition such as: a holiday, a place you go together, something you celebrate), and________ (something special about your family), from _______(name of person in your family), from________(another person in your family) and _______(another person in your family).
I am from the________(something your family does all the time) and________(another thing your family likes or does a lot).
From_____________(something you were told as a child, such as: santa claus, tooth fairy) and_____________(another thing you were told as a child).
I am from_________(the place you were born or where your family is from that is important to you),________(two food items that your family makes or that is special to your family).
From the__________(story about someone in your family, who is alive or dead),________________(another detail), and the_________________(another detail).
I am from____________(the place where your family keeps important pictures, keepsakes, things from your childhood)_______________(What do these things mean to you?)

Here is another version:

I am from (a specific item from your childhood home)
from (two products or objects from your past)
I am from (a phrase describing your childhood home)
and (more description of your childhood home)
I am from (a plant, tree or natural object from your past)
whose (personify the natural object)
I am from (two objects from your past)
from (two family names or ancestors)
and from (two family traits or tendencies)
from (another family trait, habit or tendency)
I am from (a religious memory or family tradition)
from (two foods from your family history)
from (a specific event in the life of an ancestor)
and from (another detail from the life of an ancestor)
(Memory or object you had as a child)
I am from the moments…
(continue this thought or repeat a line or idea from earlier in the poem)

Start writing your life in a poem and please share and let me know if it becomes addictive!

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Poetry – a way to release and remember our inner child

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

Neil Gaiman

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

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

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

inner child anthology 1 inner child anthology 2

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

Jan with her artwork:illustration

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

In the Foreword of the anthology the editors say:

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

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

inner child anthology Jan's poem

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

inner child anthology Avril's poem

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

inner child anthology Chris Ringrose

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

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

the shell is at least 62 years old- definitely older

inner child anthology my poem

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

inner child anthology poem by Leigh Hay

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

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

C.S. Lewis

Ten Steps to writing  your own memory poem:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan Spence – His Writing Memorable and More Than Fine

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I’m not sure Somerset Maugham‘s quote is accurate for all texts, but the books I cherish have certainly resonated deeply and a recent gift from a writer friend is a case in point. Dave, who does have Scottish ancestry, but sounds as ocker as they come is a wonderful friend who shows he is thinking of me by gifting books he discovers in opportunity shops, secondhand bookstores, or passes on books he has enjoyed.

We met for a Senior’s meal at the local Mordialloc Sporting Club and he gave me a recent find.

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First published William Collins Sons & Co Ltd, 1977. Later Phoenix Paperback, 1996.

I don’t often do book reviews because as a writer I’m more comfortable reading and writing short stories and I’ll leave book reviews to my dear friend Lisa Hill who has a well-deserved prize winning blog prioritising books by  Australian and New Zealand writers, but who was kind enough to have me as a guest reviewer last year.

However, Its Colours They Are Fine is thirteen interlinked tales in Alan Spence’s first collection of short stories. Set in Glasgow, they depict aspects of life recognisable to the majority of Glaswegians who grew up there in the 50s and 60s. As someone who was born in Greenock in 1953,  a ‘kick in the bum’ or ‘stone’s throw’ away from Glasgow, I found the stories irresistible and meaningful.

Memorable, not because of what happens, but on account of the mood that is created and the shifts of feeling that are revealed. They are memorable because they ring true. They are rather like Chekhov’s stories. Spence, too, takes a little moment of ordinary experience and transforms it, in the simplest possible manner, into something significant… In an age of ugly preoccupation with violence, he draws attention to moments of beauty and stillness. He is a gentle writer, but never sentimental. The beautiful moments have always been earned… he is a writer to cherish, one offering deep and fulfilling pleasures.

The Scotsman Review

Spence’s dialogue in vernacular (braid or broad) Scots, evokes tenement life, the slums and their inhabitants, with voices of the young and old, Catholic and Protestant, Tinkers (gypsies/travellers), immigrants from Commonwealth countries, the employed and unemployed, the hopeful and disillusioned – and beneath the surface, the deeper currents of the Irish connection, the Protestant and Catholic divide manifested through adherence to Rangers or Celtic football club.(The Old Firm).

I’ve seen some statistics that say 60% of the Glasgow population has Irish ancestry  and having an Irish mother that figure wouldn’t surprise me. There have been plenty of books and films about Glasgow, showcasing the harshness of life in the tenements, but also the humour and resilience of the people. The hooliganism and open violence associated with the two major football teams,  the bigotry fuelled violence manifested in street games, school playgrounds, pubs and clubs and of course family life, still provide high drama today.

Billy Connelly’s honest humorous presentations of growing up in Glasgow, uses language and subject matter not to everyone’s taste. This video of Billy singing I Wish I was In Glasgow is sentimental and expresses feelings I can relate to, although I’d substitute Greenock. However, we are both ‘West Coasters’!

When I was reading the various stories, I kept having flashbacks to my childhood,  remembering snatches of stories from the long after-dinner sessions of storytelling from Mum and Dad. Homesickness has been described as nostalgia for the past – well I experienced plenty of nostalgia from these stories, but also admired how he elevated moments in the lives of ordinary people to memorable, magical and unforgettable events with language of poetic potency.

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The title of the book comes from a story about the Orange Walk, a day when the main character Billy declares ‘God must be a Protestant’ and can’t wait to sing The Sash My Father Wore, the chorus being:

It is old but it is beautiful, and its colours they are fine
It was worn at Derry, Aughrim, Enniskillen and the Boyne.
My father wore it as a youth in bygone days of yore,
And on the Twelfth I love to wear the sash my father wore.

Like many of the stories, it is peopled by working class Protestant characters, many flawed and bigoted, but they also can be loyal, warm and humorous friends. This particular story has the march starting off on a sunny Saturday and by the end of the day they’re in a field in Gourock amid pouring rain. “Wher’s yer proddy god noo!” asked his friend.

In a few pages Spence explores the religious divide, the bigotry, the violence and the ignorance that feeds the Orange Walk and other inappropriate symbols and celebrations, but also the spiritual dimensions to everyday experiences, the importance of rituals and how people can enjoy spectacles without fully understanding their cultural or historical significance. Maybe one day the Orange Walks will go the way of the Confederate Flag , another symbol well past its used by date. Hopefully, people in Northern Ireland, Scotland and beyond will see the divisive celebrations around July 12th for the anachronism they are and consign them to history books.

Other stories focus on family relationships with Tinsel exploring a child’s excitement at putting up the Christmas decorations in a tenement flat with a father ill and out of work and a mother doing her best to keep everything together. The bright decorations and warmth and love inside contrasts with a city still reeling from the damage of world war two, cramped and crowded living conditions, and high unemployment.

The decorations left over from last year were in a cardboard box under the bed…Streamers and a few balloons and miracles of coloured paper that opened out into balls or long concertina snakes. On the table his mother spread out some empty cake boxes she’d brought home from work and cut them into shapes like Christmas trees and bells, and he got out his painting box and a saucerful of water and he coloured each one and left it to dry – green for the trees and yellow for the bells, the nearest he could get to gold.

This story stirred memories of my mother making do; determined to give us the trimmings of Christmas. She helped us make decorations from crepe paper, and even the bright coloured milk bottle tops were useful to cluster together as bells. We  cut up cardboard breakfast cereal packets and covered shapes with the silver paper from inside cigarette packets, and colourful sweetie and chocolate wrappers. There was never the disposable cash to be able to buy the glittering ornaments available today, nor the distraction of all the screen-based entertainment. Making objects and decorating the tree and the house was ‘something special to come home for… and feel warm and comforted by the thought.’

Mum holding me Christmas 1953
Mum holding me with Catriona
Dad’s sister Mary (Aunt Mamie) holding me

The story Sheaves about Harvest Sunday is told from a young boy’s viewpoint too as he tries to understand the deeper significance of Bible texts and parables in relation to his own life. Torn between pleasing his Mother by getting ready for Sunday School yet envying and wanting to play with his friends. The ritual of Sunday best, the giving of fruit and vegetables and other food to thank God for the seasons is another strong memory for me, especially singing a favourite hymn:

We plough the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land;
But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand:
He sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.

Chorus:

All good gifts around us
Are sent from heaven above,
Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord
For all His love.

Spence has the Sunday School teacher remind the city children who have no experience of cultivating the land and who struggle with understanding the language of the Bible:

And no matter what happens to you, even if the dirt of the world seems to have settled on you and made you forget who you really are, deep inside you are still his golden sheaves. And no matter how drab and grey and horrible our lives and this place may sometimes seem, remember that this is only the surface. And even the muck of hundreds of years cannot hide that other meaning which is behind all things. The meaning that we are here to celebrate. That God is love and Christ is Life.

The inscription at the beginning of the book is “To Nityananda and Shantishri (Tom and Maureen McGrath)” and a couple of the stories reflect Spence’s interest in the Indian spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy.  A recurring theme in the stories is that there are greater cosmic forces beyond earth and although it may be fleeting we can all experience or gain insight into this at different times in our lives, a spiritual dimension to everyday life.

The Rain Dance is a wonderful rich story with many layers about a “mixed” marriage (a Protestant marrying a Catholic) in a registry office and the rituals and festivities surrounding this event. From the noisy “hens” party parading the bride-to-be in the streets for kisses and pennies to the Scramble for bell money – the father of the bride throwing a handful of coins after the church ceremony to be scrambled for by waiting children and other onlookers.

Ah remember reading,’ said Jean, ‘that scrambles go right back tae the olden days, when the didnae keep records an that. An it wis so’s the weans an everybody wid remember the wedding. then if they ever needed witnesses, they’d aw mind a the money getting scrambled.

My parents had a registry office wedding in Glasgow in 1948. No member of Dad’s family attended because they objected to him marrying Mum – upset he chose to marry an Irish woman! Fortunately, Mum’s brother Tom and wife Bessie caught the overnight boat from Belfast and along with the best man witnessed the marriage, and shared a celebratory meal and drink in a nearby hotel. My parents eventually made up their differences with Dad’s family, but I often think how sad their ‘special day’ probably was and try to imagine the ceremony and their feelings.

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Dad and Mum married at registry office Glasgow 16/12/1948
Mum and Dad's wedding day with Tom and Bessie Courtney, Mum's brother and wife
Mum and Dad’s wedding day with Tom and Bessie Courtney, Mum’s brother and wife

Spence describes the day in a way that is culturally specific to Scotland yet full of universal observations and emotions and the description of the actual ceremony particularly poignant for me.

It was over so quickly… awkward, on the pavement, trying to keep out of the wedding-group photos of the couple that had just come out; confusion over which door to go in, then somebody showing them the way; hustle along the corridor, a few minutes’ wait, hushed, in the hall; a door opening, another wedding-group bustling past; another door opening and the registrar ushering them in.

In a low, bored drone he intoned the preliminaries… Brian was staring at the pattern on the carpet, as if he could read there the meaning of it all, the meaning they all knew at that moment. Not the lifeless ceremony, the cardboard stage-set, the dead script, the empty sham. Not that, but something at the heart of it, something real. In spite of it all, they knew, and that was what moved them, to laugh or to cry.

The other stories observe detailed fragments of life in Glasgow. Spence draws on his own childhood, with real and imagined stories. The prejudice and violence often confronting and embarrassing, none more so than Gypsy when he reveals the shameful bigotry and bullying of the people we referred to as tinkers. How sad that those at the bottom of society’s pecking order have to find  other more marginalised people to despise.

And finally, the book closes with Blue, a first person account from a grief-stricken boy coping with the death of his mother who had been ill for sometime. He works through the various connotations of “blue” whether it be his Ranger scarf, his Catholic friend’s explanation of the colour and significance of Mary’s robes, the lyrics of diverse songs like Blue Moon and Singing The Blues…

It was as if part of me already knew and accepted, but part of me cried out and denied it. I cried into my pillow and a numbness came on me, shielding me from the real pain. I was lying there, sobbing, but the other part of me, the part that accepted, simply looked on. I was watching myself crying, watching my puny grief from somewhere above it all. I was me and I was not-me.

As a writer and a reader (and as a Scot), I’m grateful Dave discovered this book for me. It is 232 pages of powerful storytelling and as the young boy in the closing story learns, despite the tragedy of his Mother’s death, life does go on and the rest of the world goes about their business. The next day “was the same. It was very ordinary. Nothing had changed…”

Except the reader – the stories will make you ponder the complexities of the human condition and engage your emotions. Trust me, you don’t have to be Scottish to enjoy them!

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Ironing the Wrinkles of Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shoogly shaggly over the glen

Mammy’s we pet, Daddy’s wee hen –

1,2,3, – out”

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

Working class improvisation of a trampoline, I suppose!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children learn what they live

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mum with unexpected visitor and pile of ironing

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

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

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

Who does your ironing?

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

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

Og Mandino

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

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

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Mum – thank you for being one extraordinary wonderful woman!

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Dear Mum
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mum’s Wisdom (a pantoum)
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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Shelter from the storm
Mairi Neil



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

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

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

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

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

The House Where I Was Born

Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

Chorus:

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

Royalty for the Day

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I’ve mentioned before how Dad often recited Rabbie Burns, believing the poems reflected life. At eight years old, I learned the meaning of:

The best-laid schemes of mice and men Gang aft agley And leave us nought but grief and pain, For promised joy

When you are the fourth of six children, special moments with either parent can be few, and in 1961, with Dad working over 40 hours a week as an engine driver, his shiftwork, including weekends, made individual attention, rare indeed. However, I remember spending a whole day with Dad – although we were not entirely alone, but shared the experience with a feisty donkey called Hamish. I consider the day a highlight of my Scottish childhood. images-11 One evening, Dad said, ‘The Sunday School pageant on Palm Sunday is going to have a real donkey.’ Dad was superintendent of St. Ninian’s Sunday School, a Church of Scotland parish accommodating the growing population of Braeside, in post-war Greenock. At the elders’ meeting to discuss ways of engaging non-churchgoing families, someone jokingly suggested that a real donkey on Palm Sunday would draw the crowds. His imagination fired by this casual remark, Dad discussed it with a workmate, Archie Barber who agreed to contact a  friend with a farm on the outskirts of Skelmorlie,  9 kilometres away.

The older boys had football practice, Catriona a commitment with Girl Guides, and Alistair and Rita were too young, so I volunteered to accompany Dad to the farm.

‘You’ll have to wear old clothes,’ Mum said, ‘there won’t be a saddle and the cuddy’s hair will  smell and be greasy.’

Normally, an outing called for Sunday best, and I’d wear the pretty dress sent from Aunt Chrissie in Australia, however, reading mum’s mind, Dad said, ‘We’ll look like a couple of tinkers, but we’ll have fun.’

Saturday came and Dad and I caught a double-decker bus and sat upstairs.  I got to sit by the window. We played I Spy, then counted different colours or types of cars. No competing voices, just the two of us; Dad’s newspaper remaining unopened on his lap.

After what seemed like hours of winding road and stops and starts, we reached Skelmorlie. The farm had a large buttercup meadow. Dad grinned as I held a flower under his chin. Pale flesh glowed. ‘You like butter.’ He tickled me, ‘I love butter.’

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A row of silver birch trees framed the whitewashed farmhouse. The stocky farmer stood beside a tethered donkey. Dad muttered, ‘What a bedraggled animal – thank goodness your mum insisted on old clothes.’

The donkey looked more like a shaggy Highland cow; its mouse-grey, grimy coat in need of a wash. Its short, whiskbroom tail rigid; its huge ears twitching. ‘Meet Hamish,’ the farmer said, ‘I’m afraid, he’s become a bit wild.’

Hamish tugged, kicked his back legs in the air, pushed his ears flat towards the back of his head and brayed. I moved closer to Dad, comforted by the squeeze of his calloused hand. The farmer said, ‘Come away inside and have a cuppa while he gets used to the harness again.’

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A woodburner stove radiated warmth; the kitchen table decorated with plates of freshly baked delights. My mouth watered at the griddle scones, soda bread and apple tart. The farmer’s wife offered me a plate of scones smothered in jam and cream whispering, ‘The one on the end is the biggest.’

Dad accepted a cup of tea and a seat on the comfy black leather sofa, nestled against a limestone wall decorated with black and white photographs. The adults chatted about the weather and Dad passed on news from Archie.

I went to the doorway and watched an uncomfortable Hamish try to wriggle free from the post.  He returned my stare with large white-ringed eyes; the only sound the rasping call of a corncrake hiding in nearby nettles.

I offered Hamish the remains of my scone. He nuzzled my hand with his pink mottled nose, ‘Hee haw!’

I jumped; sure, that Mum heard the bray all those miles away. ‘I’ll get you more food,’ and with that promise I skipped back to the kitchen.

Dad and the farmer were immersed in conversation about the new United States Navy base and Polaris nuclear fleet sited at the nearby Holy Loch. Dad campaigned for Nuclear Disarmament and never missed an opportunity to alert people to the dangers of nuclear bases. We wouldn’t be leaving for some time so I grabbed another scone and pocketed plain biscuits.

‘Your coat is magic, Hamish,’ I confided while explaining his part in the Easter play. I  traced the dark cross on his back with my fingers. Dad had told me about the legend that donkeys had unmarked hides before Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.  People believed the hairs from the crosses on the donkey’s back cured some ailments such as whooping-cough and toothache.

I was wondering if the legend and miracle cures were true when Dad’s voice interrupted my thoughts. ‘Now Hamish is calm we better make a start – it’s a long walk home.’

The farmer lifted me onto the donkey’s back. Hamish was four feet high. It felt like I was on stilts. This was so exciting!  I grinned until my face hurt, especially when the farmer’s wife gave Dad the biggest bag of jelly babies I’d ever seen. ‘Take these and use them wisely. Hamish will be no trouble.’

A few sweets coaxed Hamish from the security of the fields. I clung to his dirty coat. ‘Donkeys love to take dust baths,’ Dad said. ‘They choose a spot in their pasture to dig out and bathe themselves daily.’ I looked at several crumbling cowpats. ‘We won’t think too much about what was in the dirt,’ Dad said with a wink, ‘but he’ll need a good scrub before church tomorrow.’

He chuckled and as an afterthought said, ‘ and so will you!’

Hamish stopped. Donkeys hate water under their feet and always avoid puddles. Dad reverted to jelly baby bribery. Hamish plodded on. When he stopped, a jelly baby, or two, or three, encouraged him. I spoke my thoughts aloud, ‘ I don’t think donkeys are stupid!’ Dad smiled and gave me a jelly baby.

He pointed out marsh violets peeping from beneath a granite boulder. I studied the face almost parallel to mine. Black moustache, thick and neatly groomed, long, patrician  nose all ‘McInnes’s inherited. I sniffed his jet-black hair, Brylcreemed beneath traditional tweed cap. His olive skin, not yet summer brown, revealed the legacy of the survivors of the wrecked Spanish Armada who settled in the Highlands in the sixteenth century. Well that was the story Dad liked to tell.

Suddenly, he burst into song, his magnificent tenor voice encouraging me to join in:

Ev’ry road thro’ life is a long, long road, Fill’d with joys and sorrows too, As you journey on how your heart will yearn For the things most dear to you. With wealth and love ’tis so, But onward we must go. Keep right on to the end of the road, Keep right on to the end, Tho’ the way be long, let your heart be strong, Keep right on round the bend.

High hedgerows of white flowering blackthorn and bramble bushes with clusters of tiny blackberries hid houses from view. Dad’s tackity boots a rhythmic echo as metal tips scraped tarmacadam. Hamish increased his pace to our rousing rendition of the Uist Tramping Song:

Come along, come along, Let us foot it out together, Come along, come along, be it fair or stormy weather, With the hills of home before us and the purple of the heather, Let us sing in happy chorus, come along, come along.

The hillside bloomed, a rainbow of shy snowdrops, proud dandelions, wild hyacinths and delicate daisies. As I swayed on Hamish’s broad back, I was an Arabian princess seeking the lost city of Petra; Lady Guinevere meeting King Arthur, Mary Queen of Scots fleeing Scotland … and when Hamish allowed himself a gentle trot – Annie Oakley heading to join Buffalo Bill in the Wild West. All the tales I’d read at school or in the set of  Arthur Mee Children’s Encyclopaedia at home, swirled through my head and fired my imagination.

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Hamish fancied the buds and reddish-purple twigs of the birch tree. Dad gently tapped my shoulder. My hazel eyes followed his outstretched arm. A baby deer munched on a similar feast nearby. Bambi!  What a thrill to be able to boast about this adventurous day when I went to school.

Six kilometres from home, we reached Inverkip village. Although a Saturday afternoon and many shops were already shut, the village was a popular tourist destination for picnics. Dad tightened his grip, rubbed his whiskers into my neck. ‘Watch out; there’s witches here.’

I giggled, spied a bumblebee dancing above a clump of bluebells. ‘No there’s not.’

‘Oh, yes there is,’ Dad said, his brown eyes serious as he gave me a history lesson. ‘In the 1600s many young women were accused of witchcraft and imprisoned or killed. It wasn’t a good time at all.’ I shuddered and must have paled because Dad immediately changed the mood.

‘Not last night but the night before,’ he recited, ‘three wee witches came to my door. One with a hatchet, one with a drum and one with a pancake stuck to her … bum!’ I roared with laughter. Dad had paused for affect and said the ‘b’ word instead of thumb.

A car backfired. Hamish jumped as a truck drove past, then  froze. The jelly babies disappeared at a faster rate. We were stationary for so long passersby thought Dad a gypsy, selling donkey rides. He gave several children short rides, but refused the shiny coins offered. Grateful parents bought me ice cream, Smarties and Humbugs, and replenished the supply of jelly babies when we revealed Hamish’s addiction.

At last the churchyard appeared in view. In fading daylight, I pretended to be Jesus riding into Jerusalem.  Tethered to a railing, Hamish protested with long mournful brays. He didn’t like being contained in the small unfamiliar space.

The adventure left my legs and bottom aching, but I hid my discomfort.  At dinner that evening, the family listened enthralled as Dad, an amazing raconteur, wittily recounted our day.

Next morning, all the children arrived early to see Hamish. I felt a celebrity too as Dad washed and brushed Hamish for a dress rehearsal. However, Hamish refused to walk up the makeshift ramp into the church despite dangled carrots and a jelly baby trail. Bribery, begging, even scolding, all failed.

The church filled with a congregation eager to see the Easter play. Parents hurriedly cleaned dishevelled children and the pageant proceeded without its star. The play was a success even if Hamish didn’t play his part. Or perhaps he did. Donkeys have a reputation for being obstinate and Hamish was certainly that!

Dad murmured into my ear, ‘The best- laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley,’ and shrugged.

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I wrote this story as a response to ‘special moments with dad’, a common memoir writing prompt. There were other occasions, but this one has always loomed large in my memory.

Have you got a special moment, or moments, you can write about?

Copyright Note:

  • Sir Harry Lauder wrote Keep Right On To The End Of The Road shortly after his son was killed in action in World War I. The Uist Tramping Song is a Celtic folk song we learned at school from a regular BBC program played over the classroom radio. The Rabbie Burns quote from the poem To a Mouse on turning her up in her Nest with the Plough

Writing Family History and Life Stories as Literary Non-Fiction

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Rain batters the window as the white fluffy cumulus clouds, gathering and growing all day, decide to join together and release their load. A thunderclap booms and rumbles and a spectacular flash of lightning paints a jagged design across the sky. Nine-year-old Mary Jane huddles closer. ‘I’m not scared Mum, but that was loud, wasn’t it?’ She relaxes into my arms as I murmur, ’you’re safe here, darling,’ and I rest my chin lightly on her auburn head and close my eyes. An image appears of Dad lying comatose in his bed at Maroondah Hospital, Croydon.

False teeth awkwardly protrude from slack-jawed mouth; frail body shrunken and vulnerable. Only with concentration can I detect the almost imperceptible movement of his chest, and as trembling hands scrabble at the cotton bed sheet, I stop holding my breath; release an audible sigh of relief. My nose twitches at the sickly sweet smell from his dry lips and open mouth — it’s the residue of medication, not the smell of death – yet.

Several tears seep from the corners of my eyes, to lie hot and wet on winter-pale cheeks. I shake off the memory of our visit today and stare at the cluster of family photographs atop the maple entertainment unit. Maroondah Hospital, an hour’s drive, but also a world away from my comfortable reality. John’s culinary efforts fill the house with aromatic herbs and spices and in-between the rhythmic chop of vegetables, I hear the breathless tinkle of Anne’s voice, embellishing Year 7 tales.

More thunder rolls, this time far into the distance, but lightning flares again and a barrage of tiny hailstones drum a tattoo on the windowpane. A large shudder reminds me of Mary Jane’s need for reassurance and as I rub her back gently, subliminal flashes of her colicky babyhood make me smile; the nights pacing the floor to ease her pain. A surge of tenderness tightens my hold and I whisper, ‘I love you.’ My eyes ache with unshed tears as outside Mother Nature wails and weeps, reminiscent of a tempestuous night in another country… another time… a world away from Mordialloc.

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It’s Saturday evening at 35 Davaar Road, in 1961 Scotland. The film How Green Was My Valley broadcast on television for family viewing. The youngest siblings, Alistair (5) and Rita (2) are already in bed, but at eight-years-old, along with George (9), Iain (10) and Catriona (12), I’m allowed to stay up later than the usual 7.30pm ‘lights out’ rule of the school week.

Saturday night is ‘treat’ night. Dad has been paid on Friday and the budget allows a choice of favourite chocolate from the ‘Tali’ van coasting the neighbourhood playing Greensleeves. The mobile shop called the ‘Tali’ van and the driver referred to as ‘Tony’ regardless of his real name.

Ice-cream first introduced to Scotland by waves of Italian migrants in the early twentieth century. Most of the cafes, fish and chip shops, ice cream vans and restaurants established or owned by Italian families: Drivandi, Nardini, Capaldi, Spiteri. However, pizza and pasta have still not replaced the popular ‘fish supper’ in most Scottish homes. Italian families have lived in Greenock and surrounding districts for generations and speak with broad Scottish accents, but retain much of their Italian culture, especially Roman Catholicism.

Lyons_Maid_Ice_Cream_Van    six of us

Allowed to stay up late to watch the Saturday Night Movie on television, we munch on chocolate (Cadbury’s Flake my choice of delicacy) and sprawl on the dark green and faded gold sofa; its tired cloth worn thin from thirty years of service. Wide sofa arms make great horse rides to watch The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid after school and the hard horsehair stuffed cushions become formidable weapons in sibling squabbles.

This lounge suite inherited from Dad’s family home takes up most of the spacious living room, just as it did in 2 George Square, the tenement where I was born. A Radio Rental television the only new item of furniture, ‘standing out like a sore thumb’ in my Irish mother’s opinion, alongside other items from George Square: a 1900 rosewood china cabinet, a 1950s radiogram and 1930s walnut bed-cabinet, the drawers of which store spare bedclothes wrapped in tissue paper, and a home for Iain’s hamster when it makes one of its many escapes from his fireside cage.

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We ‘flitted’ to Davaar Road when I was three years old, a successful privately negotiated house swap with a couple who wanted to move into the centre of the town. Mum and Dad were thrilled at the move to the new estate of Corporation houses at Braeside, the result of a building boom filling the twenty-years of demand for houses, to replace the hundreds of homes lost during the Greenock Blitz. The new houses provide front and back gardens to cultivate flowers and vegetables, room for pets, a washing line with poles, and grassy playing space. Luxury!

Three large bedrooms upstairs provide room for an expanding family (ours increased by two); plus separate bathroom and toilet. Downstairs, a welcoming vestibule leads to a kitchen, dinette and living room, plus an inside coal bunker in the back lobby. A profound and welcome change from the two rooms, kitchen and bathroom shared in George Square with Dad’s father and unmarried sister, Mary. Even although we were better off than the majority of Scotland’s population living in tenement flats of either one room and kitchen houses or ‘single-ends’ (a single room with a communal toilet and bathroom at the end of the hall), the cramped conditions of George Square meant Mum and Dad couldn’t wait to move out.

The bed-cabinet, Aunt Mary’s bed for years in George Square and latterly shared with Catriona, now only used at New Year when the family came to stay to celebrate Hogmanay. The ‘hole-in-the-wall’ bed, a unique Scottish adaptation to alleviate overcrowding, not missed either. Papa slept in this bed set in the wall cavity in the kitchen, which may have contributed to his deteriorating health. Research shows it caused shocking health problems, particularly respiratory disease. Poor housing, poverty, and ill health — the struggle for men to make ‘a living-wage’— a common story in a capitalist society and borne out by statistics. Most Clydeside families watching How Green Was My Valley empathising with the characters’ lives and struggles.

papa and hole in wall bed

Despite the limitations of black and white technology, which realistically depicts the bleakness of the lives of Welsh coal miners in the years between the first and second world wars, the film reveals the magnificent grandeur of the Welsh valleys. The story unfolds of a little boy growing up in a large caring family. His father comes home covered in black dust after a physically demanding day down the coal mines. My father comes home covered in black dust after a physically demanding day shovelling coal and driving steam trains as a locomotive driver. he works hard to support our big family, which for a long time included his father and sister.

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The film on the BBC is free from the advertisements that irritate my parents, and for once, Mum is happy our eyes are ‘glued to the screen’. However, I’m devastated when the father dies in the film. Overcome with sadness, sitting on Dad’s lap, the privileged throne for the youngest in the room, I sob into his shoulder. Grateful for the large man’s handkerchief he extracts from his trouser pocket, I give ‘a big blow’ at his suggestion and snuggle into his strong arms trying to imagine what life would be like if he died. A memory stirs of our first year at Braeside. The sadness of Aunt Mary’s long illness and death; followed a few months later by my Papa’s stroke and death. I don’t want life to be like that and cling to Dad’s woollen pullover to anchor him to me forever.

The living room cosy from the embers of a glowing coal fire and the subdued light of a standard lamp, but a November gale rages outside, a fitting backdrop to the tragedy witnessed on the television and mirroring my mood. Mum leaves Dad to console me and heads to the kitchen to prepare a bedtime Bovril. Dad suggests a piggyback up the stairs to bed, in a ploy to stem the flow of tears. Attempts by the others to ‘jolly me up’ abandoned immediately to race ahead in noisy competition. Iain piggy-backs George with a giggling Catriona as helper-cum- boss.

Instead of taking me straight to bed, Dad pauses on the landing at the top of the stairs. He thinks I’m shuddering and scared of the thunder and pulls back the pink floral curtains from the window. ‘Look, love, don’t be frightened. You’re safe inside. The storm is moving back out to sea.’

My hazel eyes stare at the window watching our breath steam the glass. I can just see the dramatic dance being played out over the tiled rooftops of neighbouring houses and across the heather clad hills. Shredded black capes of clouds flap across the sky driving icy rain to sparkle like crystals while bouncing off roof tiles and tree branches stripped bare of leaves.

Suddenly, as if by magic the wind runs out of puff; the rain eases. Supported by Dad’s strong arms, I caress the soft smoothness of his neck with my cheek; let eyelashes gently scrape his ears and feel his hair tickle my nose. Safe and consumed with a powerful love I breathe in the familiar fresh soaped skin, hair faintly Brylcreamed; a shirt collar impregnated with his perspiration. He smells so alive that the fear of losing him recedes.

His soft voice explains that lightning causes thunder. He talks about extreme heat, expansion, shock and sound waves, reminds me to read again the book What is Weather that I won for being first in my class at Ravenscraig Primary School. However, this is not school and staring into the darkness, I see thick, menacing, black clouds hiding the moon and stars. The foggy window’s tear-streaked glass shares my sorrow. I shiver, unsure whether the shadow hovering by the street lamp is a bat. I cling to Dad’s strong back and whisper, ‘I love you Dad. Don’t ever go away.’

With a surprise twirl, I’m swung around to sit on the windowsill, cold glass pressed against my back; transfixed by Dad’s dark brown eyes as he explains, ‘every living thing has a life cycle… I have to die one day darling.’ My horrified face crumples. He tries a joke. ‘If nobody died the world would be very crowded – eight in the bed everywhere, every day.’

He’s trying humour by recalling our special Sundays as a family. Sunday, the only day he doesn’t go to Ladyburn Depot to work for British Railways. The Sabbath important: we must rest, just as God rested on the seventh day after creating the world. For years, Dad has refused the lucrative double time he could earn by working on a Sunday. He swaps shifts with others so that he can honour his commitment to God, St Ninian’s Church, and family.

On Sunday mornings, we dive into Mum and Dad’s double bed for a rough and tumble, a tickle, and games such as I Spy and my Aunt Jane Went On Holiday. When it’s time to get up to prepare for church Dad sings, ‘There’s eight in the bed and the little one said,’ and baby Rita chants ‘roll over’. Then we all sing, ‘and we all roll over and one fell out,’ and of course the first one out is Mum as our raucous fun continues.

Down the stairs Mum pads, to light the coal fire, set the porridge on the gas stove, fold our underwear into the linen press to warm against the hot water pipes, set the Formica table for breakfast and buff our leather shoes lined up at the back door. The weekly ritual to be in our Sunday best, a triumph of organisation with only one bathroom and toilet to share, yet we make the nine o’clock family service at St. Ninian’s — and are never late – despite the local Church of Scotland where Dad is an Elder and Superintendent of the Sunday School, being a good half hour walk away. Our attendance records an amazing feat of achievement only rivalled by Mum’s similar success shepherding us out the door, on school days.

Mum’s nurturing taken for granted. It’s years before we reflect on how she was able to function on only a few hours sleep, rising with Dad’s soul-destroying shifts to ‘see him out’ and staying up ‘to see him safely home,’ while coping with the demands of motherhood, housekeeping routines and all the unexpected trials and tribulations of caring for in-laws as well as our big family.

In the kitchen, Mum clatters dishes, stirs pots and feeds the toaster with a loaf of bread, while the singing continues, until Dad and Rita are the last downstairs. A joyful family tradition, but the remembering only emphasises what a loss Dad’s death will be. I sniff and stifle a sob. Dad realises his mistake and tries another tack.  ‘I won’t be alone, Mairi. I’ll be with Jesus in Heaven and your Papa and Mamie will be there too.’

Shattered, the tears flood as if someone turned on a tap. I don’t want to be left lonely and sad like the boy in the movie. I don’t want to be reminded that people you love disappear. My chest heaves with wracking sobs. I’m conscious of moonlight reflecting off George’s glasses as he peeps from behind the bedroom door he has pushed ajar to see what’s going on.

The pain of my heart beating so fast it blocks my throat makes it hard to swallow. Red eyes ache as if full of grit; I rub my face into Dad’s shoulder transferring tears and snot, but he doesn’t mind. I want to bury myself beneath the blankets of the three-quarter bed I share with Catriona; forget the film, forget the storm, forget Dad’s attempts at making me feel better. Catriona doesn’t like me on her side of the bed, but perhaps tonight she’ll let me cuddle into her back…

‘Are you okay, Mum?’ Mary Jane places a tiny hand on my chest and pats it gently. Her other hand dabs at my tears with a tissue.  ‘Are you thinking of Papa?’ Her sympathy reflects an intuitive perception beyond her years.

These last few months have seen Dad deteriorate physically and mentally. At 76 years old, he’s a comparatively young man, in a society where we are being told seventy is the new sixty. However, an inexplicable, inexorable, inexpiable struggle with dementia is faced daily and I revisit the fear and pain of that long ago night each time a piece of music, a cooking smell, a photograph, a snatch of conversation conjures vivid images as if burnt into memory with a branding iron. Memories of a strong loving dad, not the shell of a man I visit in hospital or the nursing home where he resides and where I visit my future – perhaps. None of us has a crystal ball or knows how we’ll age!

The storm eases and the grandfather clock in the hall chimes seven o’clock. ‘Yes darling, I think about Papa all the time.’

The storm is over. Mary Jane eases from my grip. She kisses me again and notes my tear-stained face with concern. ‘I’m always thinking of Papa,’ I whisper.  She wraps her nine-year-old arms around my shoulders and buries her head into my neck, squeezing as tightly as she can.

‘I love you, Mum; I’m sorry about Papa. I wish he was safe with Jesus.’ My body wilts and I unashamedly sob just as I did all those decades ago.

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Flexible Writing Forms, Write a Villanelle and Have More Poetry Fun

‘Whatever is flexible and flowing will tend to grow, whatever is rigid and blocked will wither and die.’

Lao Tzu, from the Tao Te Ching.

Farewell to 2014 and welcome to 2015. Like many people, particularly in my age group, I wonder where the year has gone and if it’s true that it disappears more quickly the older you are!

If I still lived in Scotland I’d celebrate Hogmanay in the traditional manner and in years gone by I’ve kept up several of the cultural traditions, but confess to having a quiet evening at home on New Year’s Eve, allowing my partying dark-haired daughter to bring in the lump of coal I left at the front door.

Actually, it is a briquette (a lump of compressed coal) from the family home at Croydon. Mum gave it to me to use specifically for the ‘first foot’ over the door on Hogmanay, when I moved into my own home in Mordialloc over 30 years ago.

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This time of year lends itself to reflection as well as remembering cultural quirks. Reflection is an important part of growth and change, especially for someone like me who teaches as well as writes.

  • What lessons worked, what ones didn’t inspire?
  • What writing resonated with others, when did the words fail?
  • What new methods can I try to inspire other writers?
  • What new techniques and tools will I introduce in this amazing digital age?
  • How will I grow and change as a writer forever seeking to improve and connect?

It’s no secret to those that know me that I’m passionate about writing and reading – because of course, they go hand in hand. I love sharing knowledge and encouraging others to be equally as passionate about the craft of writing and to expand their reading lists and writing repertoire. As I encourage others to move out of their writing comfort zone, so must I.

On New Year’s Eve I read a book that had me laughing aloud (good for the health) and admiring the pithy, witty, insightful and succinct use of the English language as well as the skilful political observations of many fellow Australians. Pardon me for mentioning… Unpublished Letters to The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald is a collection of letters commenting on the Aussie political scene late 2011- early 2013 that never made it to print (until now). It is unashamedly topical, but even if you missed some of the events (not sure how) the cleverness of the writers will impress you and the laid-back trademark Aussie humour abounds. After reading this book you’ll look at some of the names and wish they were regular published commentators of life here in Oz! (Although with our current PM, I’m guessing the 2014 edition will be unprintable!)

One letter writer quoted on the back cover:

If I get good service in a restaurant I usually tip 10 per cent of the bill. If the service is poor, the tip I leave to the waiter is: ‘Don’t overwater your bromeliads in winter.’        John Byrne, Randwick

My tip is don’t hold a cup of hot tea or coffee in your hand while reading this book especially in the chapter: Crimes Against the English Language. Yes, as well as being amusing, the book can be used as a learning tool – what better way to learn editing skills and original clever angles than to try and encapsulate what you want to say in the strict word limit of “Letters to the Editor”.

I’ve had several letters published in the past, but like many others, read my newspapers online now and I haven’t sent a letter for some time. However, this book has reignited interest and presented another writing challenge for 2015. When reading their statistics, they receive more than 2000 letters by email a week, plus faxes and handwritten missives, therefore to be published your letter needs to have that something extra – and isn’t that what we’d like for all our writing? I’m sure I can organise a lesson for my students to perfect letter writing and thinking positively, some will be published!

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Last year I introduced different poetic forms to my classes. I mentioned the pantoum in a previous post. After showing some examples, I challenged the class to choose a form and write a poem to suit. The results were magnificent, poignant, touching, funny – the whole gamut of emotions encapsulating life experiences.

Dreams Afloat – a pantoum

Ships on the horizon with cargo varied
Stirring memories of long ago
Migrants dreaming of homes adopted
And of lives they must let go.

Stirring memories of long ago
Ships called into ports enchanted
The passengers must let  history go
Seek new friends and spirits kindred

Ships called into ports enchanted
Exotic foods like mango and sago
Tempted passengers and spirits kindred
Amazing changes they’d undergo

Exotic foods like mango and sago
Migrants introduction to homes adopted
Aware of new seeds they must sow
From ships arriving with cargo varied.

Mairi Neil 2014

According to American poet, Conrad Geller, ‘One traditional form of poetry that can be fun to write, is technically easy compared to the most challenging forms, and often surprises the poet with its twists and discoveries…’ He refers to the villanelle and suggests the name derives from the Italian villa, or country house.

The Poetry Foundation say that it is, ‘A French verse form consisting of five three-line stanzas and a final quatrain, with the first and third lines of the first stanza repeating alternately in the following stanzas. These two refrain lines form the final couplet in the quatrain.’

Whatever its origins, a well-known example of a villanelle is Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas. This powerful poem can be read and heard here.

My offering much simpler, but even so, I suggest a good rhyming dictionary will come in handy and should be added to your toolbox along with a normal dictionary and thesaurus. There is a free Rhyming Dictionary online here worth bookmarking if you don’t want to go to the expense of purchasing hard copy.

As Time Goes By – a villanelle

Age brings reflection on each passing year
Sometimes nostalgia like a fever burns,
Loves and lives lost, births many a tear.

Childhood remembered. Time to conquer fear
Learning that paths have many turns
Age brings reflection on each passing year.

Like an uprooted tree, farewell those dear,
The roots left behind for memory churn
Loves and lives abandoned, births many a tear.

Building a new life; opportunities near
Success or failure? You must discern
Change brings reflection on each passing year.

Time marches on, the well-worn maxim clear,
No immunity from grief, mistakes to unlearn
Loves and lives lost, births many a tear.

And when the end of the road draws near
Count blessings. Hope your life did no harm
Age brings reflection on each passing year,
Loves and lives lost, spills many a tear.

Mairi Neil 2014.

Here’s to a happy, healthy and productive 2015 where the words will continue to flow and grow!