To Turn Your Life Into Fiction – Start at Your Local Library

library plans.jpg

Last night I attended an author event at Sandringham Library with my good friend, Lisa Hill who is a fellow bibliophile, blogger and writer. Well-respected and fiercely independent, please check Lisa’s reviews of any of the books mentioned in this post.

I’m fortunate she keeps me in the loop about local events and on a cold, dark winter night gave me a lift in her comfortable car!

An eminent book reviewer with an award-winning blog, Lisa concentrates on Australian and New Zealand literature but also reviews an impressive range of international writers, including many translations not necessarily widely distributed.

When she heard about this event in Bayside she let me know especially since I taught  Life Stories & Legacies for several years.

alan marshall sculpture.jpg

This event showcased three authors discussing how they used events from life in their novels so how apt to have a bust of Australian writer, Alan Marshall OBE outside. Alan hailed from the nearby suburb of Black Rock.

Alan’s most famous novel I Can Jump Puddles, which was on the school curriculum for years and made into a mini-series on TV, was based on his childhood fight to recover from Polio.

When I came to Australia in 1962, I think Alan Marshall was an author everyone knew and is an excellent example of turning real-life events into novels.

Library renovations are scheduled and this was the last public event before they begin so the 72 in attendance were indeed fortunate.  Before Vivienne, the Customer Service Co-ordinator for Bayside introduced the guest panel, she confided that she was celebrating her 21st Anniversary with the library – so two memorable milestones for the evening.

Vivienne also plugged the library’s campaign to promote its various services and events around the theme Libraries Change Lives, but my guess is she was preaching to the converted!

library promotion.jpg

Local author, Claire Halliday was the emcee  and in the spotlight were authors

  • Eleni Hale
  • John Tesarsch
  • Lee Kofman

Eleni was asked about the parts of her own life she mined to write her debut YA novel Stone Girl. She admitted to always wanting to write but before she could write other stories she had to write about her childhood in State Government care first.

It was a story hammering inside her to be written although she had ‘redacted being a ward of the state from her life story.’

She had been a university student, a journalist, fiancee, wife and mother but found relief in being able to write about a part of her early life never mentioned.

She released her muse and making the story fiction gave her the freedom to write without worrying about hurting others.

There are 40,000 children in the care system and her story is a compilation of those stories. Her novel a vehicle to open up and talk about her past. She listened to a lot of Metallica and similar music and kept writing!

The writing itself private and personal but became confronting when published and she faced the prospect of the publicity and marketing treadmill because as Claire suggested, journalists love a book where the author can be pressured to share what parts are true.

Eleni, a journalist herself, agreed the ‘real life experience’ is a bigger story than the novel if you expose yourself like she did, so she compiled a list of five talking points to be avoided!

The old me was about growing up in an Australian orphanage,’ said Eleni, ‘and I wore that like a cape.’

She still feels separate from the character because the media have been reasonable and looked at the actual issue she wanted to spotlight – the experience of kids in care.

eleni with her book.jpg
Eleni holding her novel Stone Girl

Embellishment versus Truth?

Eleni said that in the beginning, her character Sophie is twelve and has lost her mum and ends up a Ward of the State. She meets Milo on the street and he is a cool dude she is attracted to but ends up trapped in his home.

Eleni shared a true story ‘not shared publicly before.

An incident in her own life was the inspiration for the Milo scene. She was fourteen or fifteen and in care. They were encouraged to go out during the day and one day she met a Jamaican DJ who fitted the description of Milo. She ended up scared and locked in his house. The Milo scene in the book has the essence of that real-life event.

Why didn’t she smash a window?

She recalls being groggy so he must have put something in her food or drink and yet she was street smart.

Work In Progress

In Eleni’s new book, a crime thriller and still a work in progress, she will tackle a theme of ‘classism’ and the poverty it creates in Australia.

After Stone Girl was published she was contacted by many people wanting to share their stories. She gathered more knowledge and ideas and became aware of how many people are ashamed to admit they were in care or were poor and had traumatic experiences. There are many stories to be told!

claire and panel.jpg
Claire Halliday introducing Lee, John and Eleni

Claire then focused on John who is a barrister in Melbourne.

He was asked if he used his clients’ stories, particularly since the theme of his book The Last Will and Testament of Henry Hoffman was an estate issue. A daughter finds a will after her father’s untimely death and wonders who is the mystery woman mentioned.

John declared that the intersection of family and money is toxic, which is why as a lawyer, he avoids estate work but it is a rich vein for storytellers.

He doesn’t directly poach client stories because that would be unethical, however, his novel has elements of autobiography. It is about a father and daughter, the relationship between parents and children, and how trauma resonates through generations.

Claire mentioned that the character Sarah is a concert pianist who has to quit music as a career. Did John draw on his experience as a cellist with a stellar career who had to quit?

John explained that when he was in Vienna the skin on his hands began to peel off and he discovered he was allergic to the dark rosin applied to the cello bow. He had to give up playing an instrument he loved.

However, his character, Sarah gave up playing because of stage fright and they both coped with the initial grief differently. He reinvented himself as a lawyer and now a writer believing ‘when one door closes another opens‘ whereas his character just got stuck.

John believes writing fiction is all about imagination and he never runs out of ideas – and hopefully, they will always be good ideas. His ‘compost heap of a mind‘ searches for a response – a counterfactual experience – and he will not worry about running out of experiences to fuel ideas to write about.

john and lee.jpg
Lee Kofman and John Tesarsch

Balancing Historical Facts, Real Life & Fiction?

Dinner With the Dissidents, John’s novel set in 1971 Moscow has an aspiring author as the main character. An Australian publisher offers him a book deal if he’ll spy on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

John drew on his experience trying to get his first manuscript published to the extent he empathised and appreciated the writer’s desire to be published.

It is daunting to write a novel that sits well with historical facts. He read lots of Russian novels and researched for months about that time in history before coming to the realisation that the human condition is universal. The emotions a character reveals the same regardless of ethnicity.

For his work in progress, John is having a change of pace and genre. He is writing a romantic comedy involving an Elvis impersonator – and he has been that! This drew laughter from the audience, especially when he confessed he may use a pseudonym!

john's book.jpg

Lee Kofman is a memoirist and memoir teacher and talked about applying an evocative twist to real-life writing. She admitted to being a prolific confessional writer in three languages.

In the 90s, when she started to write in her style, there was no real creative non-fiction but she fell in love with the memoir genre, which is a slice of your life – not all autobiography.

She found the trick was to examine the difference between herself now and younger self. Look at younger self from a distance, try not to be too attached to current emotions and thoughts – look at younger self, be the cold observer. Ask what are the emotions younger self feel? Why did events happen to cause those feelings? Reveal something that happened intimately, yet do it overtly.

It is confronting to reveal something, or a life that you once hid (she referred to Eleni’s expose of her life as a State Ward) and Lee said she experienced that when writing Imperfect about her body scars.

The balances between what to include or omit difficult to attain. She found Helen Garner a good model as a writer when she advised ‘keep to your own truth and story’. Lee followed this advice when she wrote Dangerous Bride. She stuck to writing her own feelings and emotions and didn’t run down her ex just to make him look bad. It was an intimate expose of a marriage breakdown but it remained her story.

She also admires novelist Robert Dessaix.

lees books.jpg

Lee believes successful writing is all in the voice and how you tell your story. One of Helen Garner’s books begins with a description of ordinary people having breakfast yet you keep reading.

It is how you write your voice. Keep it true and natural and your voice will be authentic.

Lee curated/edited an anthology of personal essays, SPLIT. All the contributors were told the stories had to be about endings. Personal essays are a meshing of real life and to be successful

  • the stakes must be high,
  • there must be conflict,
  • a resolution or change in the character
  • or if no resolution, show acceptance of there being no change.

Therefore, in SPLIT, the stories had to be dramatic endings, endings that changed the writer. Good essays include snippets of dialogue and colour to bring the words to life.

John said he had been asked to write a personal essay but enjoys fiction writing. Eleni finds writing personal essays confronting and would be worried about who she’ll affect so prefers hiding behind characters.

claires book.jpg

The Editing Process – Writing For Readers or Yourself?

Eleni advised ignoring who will be reading your story and just write and worry about readership later when editing. Write first, think about publishing later; worrying about readers will block your writing flow.

She put Metallica on and just wrote furiously, not worrying about how many words or how they came out on the page.

To be a writer you must read, read and read. Then write, write, write and have tenacity without beating yourself up about how good or bad your work is.

She wrote four drafts of her 80,000-word novel and threw the first three out!

She is with Penguin and they didn’t change anything of the final draft. She only needed a line edit, not a structural edit. However, as a journalist with The Herald Sun, she is not a novice writer.

John is with Affirm publishers, who won publisher of the year. Lee is also with them as well as another publisher. They both agreed you are fortunate if you receive a structural edit. It is wonderful to get attention and good editing, many publishers don’t offer that today.

To have an independent outsider check your work is a valuable and rewarding process for a writer.

Regarding the writing process, Lee told the story of a suicidal Russian poet who left a note for his mother, sister and lover – ‘I don’t recommend it!’ She said she feels like that about memoir!

johns other book.jpg

How Important is Having Distance Between an Event and Writing About It?

A member of the audience noted the panel had all mentioned having distance between a life event/experience and writing about it – whether that was emotional, time, or relocation of place.

John said that with his music experience, it was a long time ago and he had a sense of perspective about his allergy and his reaction to not being able to play anymore. He believed having that distance adds depth to your writing but he stressed he writes fiction, it is not him but his character who is doing the experiencing. Characters must have their own life.

Eleni said it was about time – she went from someone who didn’t have a voice and became a Herald Sun journalist. But she needed time to write about when she didn’t have a voice.

For Lee, it took twenty years before she was able to write about broken relationships and her marriage.

When Eleni was asked if there was a conflict between what she experienced and how much the reader must know to understand and connect with the story, she said she had woven the story around other kids’ stories and hoped people would see and understand the telling.

She recalled her writing teacher at university saying that writing was like taking a photograph, don’t clutter it up. Good writing is picking what needs to be in the story.

Eleni tried to write an autobiography but couldn’t. Writing as fiction she had to show not tell, although it was important to be truthful. She walked in the footsteps of those who suffered plus showed the bureaucracy, social workers, the homes the kids moved around in and the other kids met along the way.

She hoped readers would see and understand.

John was asked if he thought there was a dearth of political novels in Australia and why? His novel Dinner With Dissidents set in the 1970s Russia and was about surveillance etc but considering recent events in Australia where the Australian Federal Police raided the ABC HQ in Sydney and a News Corp journalist’s home, there is obviously, fodder for political novels.

John suspects it will change here. Although we have had a relatively benign political climate, the whole apparatus of society is changing because of technology and the level of surveillance is different compared to a decade ago.

Another question from the audience raised the crime genre as a vehicle for social realism and asked Eleni if this is why she chose to write another issue based book.

The audience member referred to Wendy Squires article in The Age after the young woman Courtney Herron was murdered in Royal Park.  Wendy revealed she had been homeless and could empathise with the feeling of shame and stigma attached to people like Courtney.

Eleni agreed this was a great example of a writer using their voice and real-life experience to draw attention to an important social reality.

a barred window copy.jpg

Do You Write For Self or for Readers?

An audience member told the panel he was recently sent three novels to review. Two were awful. The third he found better because the writer produced a book where scenes came alive as if watching a movie.

Did the panel consider their readers?

Eleni said the first draft of her novel was awful and it would have been a punishment if someone was required to read it! She threw it out.

She believed you must weave description through the characters’ actions and dialogue. Excellent writing is visual.

John is motivated by the joy of the writing process. When he is in the writing zone he feels alive and vivid and doesn’t think about anything else but the story and moving it along. His publisher and agent can figure out the readership. He doesn’t think about what readers will take from his novels.

Lee writes for herself. She wants to answer questions and writes for selfish reasons but redrafts all the time. The last book she was very mindful of the readers.

There was a happy buzz when the panel concluded and a beeline for the table with books for sale. Others queued to talk with the authors.

The organisers can pat themselves on the back for a successful evening.

How lucky we are to have authors willing to sit in a suburban library on a cold winter’s evening and generously share their time, skills and writing tips.

Now to put some of that expert encouragement and inspiration into practice!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walking, Writing – Is there a Plan? Hello, 2019!

flame tree mentone.jpg

On a walk with my dearest friend, Lesley, we paused by a beautiful Illawarra Flame Tree to listen to rosellas, ravens and wattlebirds in conversation – perhaps squabbling over the best branch or sharing neighbourhood gossip birds enjoy.

It was a fitting end to 2018 – especially since the New Year has begun with an ‘unprecedented’ heatwave right across the continent.

A visual metaphor perhaps, a warning about global warming?

nz319.jpg
LabInitio NZ cartoon

However, being a glass-half-full person, I’d rather accept the experience as an amazing gift from Mother Nature and a reminder there is countless beauty in gardens around the neighbourhood, and in the wild, for all of us to appreciate and share.

The glorious flaming tree emphasised how important the neighbourhood and nature is to me.

The number of wonderful species of plants and animals we have already lost is a worry especially when the bumblebee was added last year to the ever-growing list of endangered species overseas such as the grizzly bear, the northern spotted owl, the grey wolf, and nearly 1 in 3 of our unique Australian mammals are at risk  – mainly through habitat destruction.

But with a Federal Election coming up and climate change always in the news I am full of hope there are people, like myself who value and will work towards changing attitudes and our current Federal Government.

There is only one Earth to be respected, nurtured and shared, not just dug up, mined, fished, dredged, drilled and concreted over.

Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior docked in Melbourne in November to remind us there is a community of people who care and are prepared to act.

… as a writer, I am dependent on scientific inquiry for information. If I am going to write coherently – about polar bears, for example – I am dependent upon the scientists who work with polar bears for solid information of a certain sort. And yet I am troubled by this because of the way we approach animals as scientists.

Barry Lopez, from a discussion with Edward O Wilson on ‘Ecology and The Human Imagination,’ University of Utah, February 1, 1998.

Let’s celebrate the natural world

We have much to learn from the animal and natural world.

Birds are constantly adapting to changed circumstances, adversity and catastrophe. Recently, I’ve been entertained by the songs of a butcher bird that decided it likes my garden. I noticed the baby bird a few months ago so move over magpies and wattlebirds.

I am one of the few houses in Albert Street that still has a reasonable number of trees as apartment blocks and townhouses mushroom around me. A self-confessed dendrophile I will be planting more trees this year and spending time cultivating the garden with flowers and vegetables. (Even if the possums ate my broccoli and are munching their way through the top of the five photinias protecting the back fence.)

Indulging the senses

There are lots of inspirational ideas from walking around the suburbs – a mixture of indigenous, imported, practical and ornamental trees and plants attract a variety of birds, butterflies and insects.

Lesley and I have already made a pact to share more cuttings and encourage each other regarding our gardens. We are both transitioning to retirement, so my writing will indubitably reflect either success or failure!

I’ll take a leaf out of Thoreau’s practice of walking, observing, pondering and writing…

… we begin to see the whole man as we follow the crowded, highly charged, and rapidly evolving inner life that accompanies the busy outer life and reveals the thoughts behind the eyes of the familiar photographs.

Robert D Richardson Jr: Henry David Thoreau: A Life of The Mind.

Will I be inspired to be more creative and productive and take the advice I’ve meted out to students over the years? Thoreau mined his journal jottings and got essays and books out of his copious notes – not sure I’ll be so talented…

As a person who likes to ‘join the dots’ I value connectedness when memories spring to mind as I walk or travel by public transport. I have a pile of notebooks to be typed up and documents already on the computer to finish or add to and way too many photographs. (My oldest daughter banned me from ever opening an Instagram account!)

bless garden sign.jpg

Will 2019 be the year I use time wisely or perhaps discover a niche other than writing and teaching?

Do I write up and polish, start afresh, a bit of both or ‘now for something completely different’?

Maybe just luxuriate in reading and gardening…

my garden early spring.jpg

Tales of Our Lives
Mairi Neil

If you want to record your stories
consider what and ponder why –
list all the events to be remembered
and ask, ‘Who for?’

Is that a sigh?

If wondering ‘who’ don’t worry
there’s joy in a manuscript for one
reflecting on life and lessons learned
gives satisfaction when writing done!

Do we need to record our stories?
Some question the wisdom of revisiting years
but most of us have lived experiences
to prompt laughter as well as tears.

Ordinary people live extraordinary lives
an observation you often hear said –
so concentrate on the who and what
think how your stories will be read.

Will you write with pen and ink –
forming copperplated words
or tap myriad computer keys
that easily erase the absurd?

You may even take recording
to another level of authenticity,
digital voice and video programs
reproducing ‘you’ with simplicity.

And if you do go digital –
recording voice and visuals – remember
mobile phones, Youtube, Facebook
retain the serious and the trivial…

Stories have entertained us
from the beginning of humankind
witness Stone Age drawings and
precious artefacts archaeologists find.

Storytelling fills a need and
links the present to the past
by exploring our human story –
we ‘nail our colours to the mast’!

magpie on clothesline.jpg

No More Travelling To Bentleigh

It will be strange not going to class Wednesday mornings and catching up with the students in my Life Stories & Legacies class.

As I considered the final anthology, I looked around the room and realised some of the students had journeyed with me for the five years the course has been running. The women scribbling in their notebooks and tapping an iPad now friends, not students. All are amazing writers whose authentic prose and poems from the heart, were written from a depth of experience spanning decades. Edna the oldest will be turning ninety in a couple of months and Anat, the youngest in her thirties.

I watched them grow in confidence as writers, bond and trust each other, learning to be true to themselves and their stories. They shared personal and family secrets, opinions (not always politically correct), anecdotes, and many entertaining and heartbreaking tales of life’s sorrows and joys.

The class established for people who wanted to leave a written legacy. The questions each one had to answer:

  • Who am I writing for?
  • What information do I think they need to know?
  • More importantly, what do I want them to know?
  • What will they remember about me?

anthologies 2014-18.jpg

I published 8 class anthologies over the years and if the students finished a semester or year they contributed work. The students who shared their stories 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018:

  • Melissa Quigley
  • Jan Wiburd
  • Annie Crane
  • Edna Gaffney
  • Nora Boghikian
  • Anat Bigos
  • Helen Thomas
  • Donna Hellier
  • Mary Robinson
  • Suzanne Dillon

Some of the students were childless but have dear friends and family to think about or aimed to publish their life stories for the general public.

No students in the final class had a partner – they either never married, were divorced, or widowed. Therefore our stories had a definite female, some may say feminist, perspective.

I am constantly awed at the resilience and determination displayed when journeys are shared – the overcoming or ongoing struggle with illness, disease, disability; the grief and mourning for loved ones touches us all, as well as the additional losses – of country, of culture, of employment, of partners, of children, of health, of pets, of self-esteem… the list can go on.

Writing is appreciating and trying to explain/understand the human condition. Yet a strong aspect of writing classes has always been laughter – not only do we love to laugh with each other but at ourselves.

Another aspect has been the delicious morning teas and birthday celebrations – on Wednesday mornings, Anat’s carer, Jill an integral part of our class family and birthday cake maker extraordinaire!

The tapestry of my life has been so much richer because of Wednesday mornings and although looking to weave new threads, or even have a rest from weaving, I’m going to miss Life Stories & Legacies where I was truly blessed with a wonderful class.

The poems and stories of all past students are important to me and when I read their words I hear their voices, imagine them in class… memories I value.

I have a bookshelf of class anthologies from Sandy Beach, Mordialloc, Bentleigh and Chelsea and reading the poems and stories I can recall the writers:

class anthologies.jpg

Not Everyone is A Digital Native

We are in the digital age and the demands of readers have changed – there are websites, blogs, e-books, podcasts, audiobooks – stories experienced on a variety of devices with different screens and parameters.

If writers want to reach a variety of readers methods must change.

How to adapt is a  personal choice, and for many people, the traditional printed paper is still what they want to read and how they want to be published.

I found most of the students coming to my classes were not digital natives and preferred to keep learning the craft of writing and learning computer skills separate. Some struggled with basic formatting, some were not on email, many had ‘hunt and peck’ keyboard skills.

Fortunately, all were happy to be lifelong learners and even if it was a struggle they’d attend computer classes too, which most community houses or libraries now provide. Coping with a wide range of skills, or lack of skills a fact of life if teaching in community houses and it’s important not to leave anyone behind.

However, whether you write with pen and paper or prefer to tap your laptop or iPad you benefit from regular writing. Writing classes or workshops can be a first step to discovering not only what you want to write while learning the tools of the craft, but also how you want to be published.

Writing helps you reflect on your life and changes you’re making. … Writing regularly makes you better at writing. And writing is a powerful skill to be good at in our digital age. Writing for an audience (even if the audience is just one person) helps you to think from the perspective of the audience.

Leo Babauto

More importantly, writing classes can keep you motivated.  Writing courses proliferate online as well as bricks and mortar but for convenience and cost, community houses are hard to beat. They throw in ambience, friendship, sharing of stories and ideas, and a lot of love and caring so I’m glad the classes are continuing at Bentleigh with other teachers.

Number Nine Godfrey Street

Mairi Neil

The garden a delight from someone’s green fingers
a profusion of pastel colours glistening
while sunshine smiles and fickle autumn spits rain
I watch visitors stream inside the nondescript house
their footsteps echoing on shaded verandah
walkers scrape and stroller wheels squeak
a magpie trills in dinner-suited elegance,
preening glossy feathers and strutting the footpath
as if ushering passersby to enter stage right ––
the Isadora scarf or Hitchcock cigar missing.

A young woman, nursing a toddler on her hip,
grins a welcome to the elderly gent
clutching a chessboard and secret moves
their families farewelled to independence,
seniors care for themselves in exercise classes
small talk in craft sessions produces big results
delightful aromas drift from the kitchen ––
homemade pumpkin soup, sweet chocolate cookies,
spicy curries – recipes shared with curiosity and love
sauced with tales from distant lands.

Oil paintings and pastel drawings, the fruit
of nurtured local artists decorate the walls
this house celebrates learning, laughter and leisure …
friendships bubble, overflow to the neighbourhood
no need to cruise the retail choices of Centre Road,
sup lonely cafe lattes amid chattering conversations
or sit mesmerised by mobile screens
a house in Godfrey Street plants seeds
and grows friendships, welcomes newcomers,
encourages indigenous and immigrant to bloom.

In the house singsong voices of children tinkle
while mellow murmurings of writers’ words
capture imagination, life experience, and wisdom.
pens scratch notepads as the sewing group
across the hall coax machines to whirr into life,
garments appear patterned by creativity
wordsmiths spin sentences for pleasure
every room thrums and hums as
people connect, care, and communicate
a commitment to lifelong learning

I accept the marching magpie’s invitation
submit to being ‘led up the garden path’
and follow a thirty-year trail to discover
like the vibrant blossoms in the garden
community and harmony flourishes
at Number Nine Godfrey Street, Bentleigh.

download.jpg

Seeking Serenity

Unknown

The downside of the digital age is bad news travels more than fast – it’s instantaneous. At the moment in Australia, we have a Federal government performing poorly in so many areas that once again ‘the war on terror’ must take central place to keep us living in fear and to make an out of touch government relevant to ordinary citizens.

Unfortunately, throughout the world, there are plenty of images and stories to keep the fires of fear alight. Many stories so horrible that it’s easy to forget the majority of people in Australia live life at peace. Daily life is caring and interacting with friends and family; trying to do their best at work, home, school or play, not coping with bombs like some other countries.

There are bad people in the world, in fact, the epitome of evil judging by the horrific scenes delivered in full cinematic colour and sound to our flat-screen televisions. However, ‘Man’s inhumanity to man’ is not new as this Rabbie Burns poem  often quoted by my father reveals:

‘Many and sharp the num’rous ills
Inwoven with our frame!
More pointed still we make ourselves
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And Man, whose heav’n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, –
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!

Robert Burns, From Man was made to Mourn: A Dirge, 1785

To appreciate life is not always ‘gloom and doom,’  I give my students a writing task to write about a favourite place. In the Life Stories and Legacies classes, they ponder about a place that is or was special and reflect on why. This pleasurable exercise invariably calms and reminds us life can be happy, interesting, even satisfying.

Most of us have an idyllic place we visit in our imagination, or a place precious in our heart, perhaps a childhood home or holiday. It may be a longing to visit a dream place,  the motivating thought of crossing it off our bucket list. Nostalgia or desire powerful draw-cards to provide a feeling of wellbeing, relief, and distraction.  It could be a memorable travel experience – finding your Shangri-La.

One of my favourite places is Stony Point on Western Port Bay. This quiet semi-rural coastal spot has a caravan park with 50 powered sites, but no obvious cluster of permanent houses. Popular in summer, it’s the railway terminus for anyone wanting to take a ferry across to Phillip Island (famous for its fairy penguins) and French Island with the little diesel train an oddity on the electrified Metro network.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I’m a regular traveller to Stony Point since 2002 because my husband, John’s ashes were scattered off the pier at his request. The tide swept them far out to sea, an ideal final journey for someone ex-Royal Navy with a love of the sea. ‘I’ll be on every tide no matter where you are in the world,’ he said and this has been a great comfort to me and our daughters Anne and Mary Jane. We always head for the sea on John’s birthday and the anniversary of his death whether in Australia, USA, Canada or New Zealand… places we’ve been at those times.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Stony Point’s a popular fishing spot, but in earlier times was the centre of communication by land and sea for the whole of Western Port. All rail and ferry traffic began and ended at Stony Point. The locals were mainly fisherman and farmers and sent their produce to distant markets by train or ferry. A prison farm on French Island and the needs of nearby HMAS Cerberus naval base meant there were government contracts. However, the closure of the prison and subsequent development of French Island and nearby towns have left Stony Point almost in a time warp.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Tourists who stay in the caravan park can explore the whole of the Mornington Peninsula including the galleries, cycle tracks, wineries and golf courses. The three-lane boat ramp kept in excellent condition and well-used. It attracts flocks of well-fed pelicans. The birds hang around the mud flats and gutting tables until boats return. They are rarely disappointed and fight for the scraps fishermen discard. This misquoted and misattributed poem always comes to mind:

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week
But I’m damned if I see how the helican!

Dixon Lanier Merritt

I’ve taken hundreds of photographs of the pelicans, on visits to Stony Point over the years. The girls laugh at my obsession, but I find the pelicans’ behaviour entertaining, and there is something comforting about their dignified presence. I’ve captured the place in all its seasonal glory, always amazed at how little it changes.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Although there was drama in 2004 when the Federal Government under Prime Minister John Howard decided we must be “alert not alarmed.” Security around defence establishments was increased and Stony Point changed.

As a writer, carrying my trusty pocket notebook and pen, listening and observing, I share a story from that time – a snapshot of one visit…

Journal Entry January 2004

The kiosk atop the hillock to the left of the railway station has a perfect view of pier and harbour. The dowdy dull building could do with a makeover and I wish again for the capital to give the owners an offer they can’t refuse. It would be an ideal home and income – close to the sea and John. I’m struggling with being on my own with two teenage daughters – a quiet backwater seems attractive.

I buy a cup of coffee and sit down at an outside table to soak up the serenity I crave. A whiff of Peter Jackson brings back memories of John,  a waft of white wine makes me wonder if he floats in on the tide and visits the kiosk to be re-energised.

It’s Saturday. The baby blue water reflects a brilliant cloudless sky as the weekend summer crowd builds. A  light breeze plays with the multicoloured plastic strips hanging from the doorway of the dilapidated kiosk. They’re already pushed and stretched at regular intervals making their purpose of preventing flies entering the shop irrelevant.

It’s not quite noon, but Amy, a local, sits outside on one of the half dozen outdoor table and chair sets. Dressed in summer shorts and skimpy halter-neck top, she could be mistaken for a middle-aged tourist. Crinkled skin on a too-thin neck and slim berry brown arms and legs reveal a life exposed to the sun, salt and sea. Her only encumbrances, a cigarette in one hand, and a half-full wineglass in the other.

The constant chug of boat engines competes with the chattering of noisy miner birds, interrupted at regular intervals by the rhythmic thwack-thwack, as cars trailing boats bump over the speed hump, placed with strategic significance, at the entrance to the ticket box for the carpark.

On the wooden bench beside Amy sit a couple of similar age, plus a young woman bearing such an uncanny resemblance, including her attire, that she has to be Amy’s daughter. They all hold wine glasses recently topped up from a bottle of locally produced Chardonnay now warming in the sun.

Amy sips before speaking, ‘Lil, you should’ve seen the sunrise this morning. It was liquid gold. Just pure gold, before the sky, turned orange and pink.’

‘You must’ve been up early.’

‘Yeah, the navy boat for training cadets closed off half the pier – security they say.’
The occupants of the table follow Amy’s gaze, taking in the hastily erected wire fence.

‘I reckon it was spite meself,’ said Amy, ‘ that’s why they made as much noise as the invasion of Iraq. Honestly, I bet the poor buggers in the cemetery at Crib Point sat bolt upright!’

Lil laughs. ‘What dya mean spite?’

‘Well, there’s always fights at the pub between them and the locals.’ Amy takes another sip, ‘and the muscles you get from hauling nets and sails sure beats the hell out of training that revolves around pushing buttons and tapping keyboards. Navy cadets ain’t what they used to be Lil – not like when we were young.’

Lil blushes, twists her wedding ring, looks at the man sitting beside her. The fifty-something bloke with leathery skin and balding head stares at the pier oblivious to the banter. His deep voice almost a growl. ‘Not many fishing today… the locals are usually spread along both sides of the pier.’

The relaxed group follow his gaze as a ribbon of cars hauling boats, arrive and park. The kiosk a backstop if the anglers have forgotten some item of food or bait, but most are self-sufficient. Liquid to celebrate a good catch or lament a bad one stashed in Eskies amid layers of crushed ice.

Amy sips her wine looking pensive. ‘Word is Ted that they’re gonna erect a permanent wire fence so locals won’t get access to the left side of the pier at all.’

Ted shrugs. ‘Well, it does belong to the Feds. The Port Authority just enforces policy.’

Lil’s slate grey eyes have been following the stream of cars in and out of the carpark by the jetty. Her voice is sharp, ‘Always has done and no-one bothers, Ted. So why make a big deal now? My family’s fished here for years. Everyone knows the best elephant fish and salmon are bagged from that side.’

Amy snorts. ‘It’s all that war on terror stuff,’ she shakes her cloud of red-dyed curls and rolls blue eyes skywards, ‘as if terrorists could be bothered blowing up anything here.’

Lil’s indignation flames her cheeks. ‘HMAS Cerberus is at Crib Point, and the oil refinery, fractional plant, liquid petroleum and ethane gas plant and a crude oil shipping plant – every bloody plant except the kind that will actually keep us breathing!’

She empties her glass with a gulp, ‘the security fences should be a few miles up the road if they’re serious. They only man this depot here during the week.’

The young woman smirks. ‘Maybe we can ask Al Qaida operatives to work to union rules and only attack 9 to 5, Monday to Friday?’

Ted is not amused. ‘They might do it just for the helluvit – we supported the Yanks blowing up Iraq and Afghanistan, yet the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. The whole point of terrorism is to be unpredictable and strike fear into ordinary people. To disrupt and cause panic…’

Lil places a placating hand on Ted’s hairy arm; her voice much calmer, ‘Okay Love, we don’t need a lecture. It’s too nice a day to worry about the war on terror.’

The persistent whine of a boat engine draws eyes seaward before Ted notices the source and points over to the far right. ‘Look at the yachts beyond that motorboat, not often you see yachts down here.’

Amy holds her hand above her eyes to deflect the glare of sunlight. ‘It’s sheltered here. I often get phone calls asking what the weather is like from people who are further up the coast. Mainly from Yaringa, that lovely boat harbour to the top of us.’

She lights another cigarette and takes a long drag. ‘Did you see in the paper a guy on a jet ski was fined for harassing dolphins? Another guy comes down with a hovercraft and goes over the mudflats – you should hear the noise that makes.’

Ted’s voice a grumble, ‘ Probably looking for abalone, the illegal trade will wipe out locals. Bet there’s divers on that yacht and they won’t stop at 5 bags.’

‘Mmm, the most delicious shellfish you’ll ever taste,’ said Lil, licking her lips.

Amy sucks at her smoke, ‘Abalone? Shell useful too, you know. They’re pearl shells,’ she stubs out her cigarette, ‘you can use them as an ashtray like this one.’

Lil’s expression suggests she can taste abalone right now. ‘You know if you are cooking Chinese stirfry cut it against the grain like you’d do meat. Don’t beat it, just dip it in breadcrumbs and egg, then drop in hot oil for a few seconds. Oh, it is beautiful!’

Sunlight bounces off the gleaming glasses, dances on the table, Amy’s silver rings and bangles shooting rays like spears. All eyes focus on several groups fishing at the pier. Families, father and son couples, mate duos, primary school children alongside teenagers, lone anglers. Mesmerised they appear to have run out of conversation. The war on terror may be headlines in the newspapers but is remote here.

Meanwhile, residents of the small fishing village use the kiosk as a backstop, a pick-up point for newspapers or the place to keep up with local gossip. Visitors to the adjacent Caravan Park or local fishermen collect the latest government circular, frequent the sandwich bar or perhaps buy the ubiquitous microwavable packaged pie and sausage roll.

Day-trippers, like me, from Melbourne, off-loaded at the terminus by the old-fashioned diesel train, sit at the tables beneath shady orange and red flowering grevilleas, sipping hot drinks from polystyrene cups or cold drinks from glass bottles or tins. We read the complimentary paper and tourist brochures or contemplate the surprising mellowness of this backwater until it is time to either catch the ferry to French or Phillip Islands or return on the train.

 I walk toward the pier. The tide is coming in with speed now and the water gurgles and glubs as it slaps against the pier pylons. I drop a sprig of rosemary and a strand of lavender into the water and whisper, ‘for you my love, memories of home. We’re doing all right.’

the flowers float from the pier

I feast on the glorious vista of the sea and islands beyond. This oasis of calm embedded in my heart. Worries dissipate and I know I’ve told John the truth – despite life’s upheavals, despite all the madness in the world, we are fortunate and doing all right!

I walk back towards the train station snatching a final look at the sea, sand and endless horizon. In a few hours, I’ll be back in the fray trying to make a difference, being bombarded by shocking news and reminding myself there is a place of serenity!

Carol always remembers
For 10 years on the anniversary of John’s death, Carol, who was the local florist and a close friend left 3 roses on our doorstep.

Family pets are important characters in your Life Stories!

josie at rest in garden 2

As I write a post to introduce Josie and record how she came into our lives, I’ve revisited one written four years ago to remind myself how important pets are to family life and the memories they spark.

We farewelled Aurora recently, after almost fourteen years and the house was not a home until we filled the void she left!

Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.

Anatole France

Unknown-2

Pets are not people but most families, if they have a pet, become attached to the animal and some are almost treated like another child.

Students in creative writing classes often include animals in their stories but sometimes when people write family history or memoir, they forget the interesting stories pets generate, or they miss the opportunity to show why particular pets were important.

These stories don’t always have to be sad or end with the death of the pet. Most people have lots of interesting anecdotes.

Vignettes written from the pet’s point of view can be unusual and entertaining!

With an endless assortment of children and animals living under one roof, there was always some absurd crisis that gave comic relief to my problems.

Sally Jessy Raphael

One of my students who grew up on a farm in the country realised her only daughter, a city child, had missed building relationships with a variety of animals.

‘D’ came to my classes and by the end of a semester had produced a wonderful collection of animal tales. She included pictures of the pets from her childhood and after a trip to Officeworks, various family members received a copy of the book as a gift.

D’s daughter now has a priceless record of her mother’s memories of a childhood in the Australian Bush.

Writers can use a variety of techniques to convey the pet’s intentions and ‘thoughts’, particularly if writing about dogs and cats, the most common domesticated pets. Describe their body language:

  • how they move, their paws, their ears,
  • the sounds they make;
  • how they react to the weather, interact with others outside the family, and so on.

A pet becomes another character in your memoir. A pet’s life span is usually short enough that humans can see a life journey unfolding from beginning to end.

I can still remember a family cat, Smoky giving birth – she chose my brother’s bed and his school jumper for comfort – much to my Mother’s horror since she had prepared a comfortable and quiet ‘bed’ for the cat!

  • Often, our first lessons about birth and death come from observing pets.
  • We learn about love, devotion, belonging, life and death.
  • In many cases, we learn about compassion, tolerance, responsibility and consequences of behaviour.

Stories about pets slotted into your memoir or collection of life stories will reveal a lot about yourself and family dynamics.

Marley & Me

Marley & Me by John Grogan was a runaway success as a book before being made into a very popular film. The pleasure, pain, embarrassment and pride of owning and trying to train Marley, a gorgeous golden labrador, is entertaining and memorable reading. The book and film’s success reaffirms there’s a market for animal stories.

All my life I’ve lived in homes with pets – growing up in Scotland we had a collie dog, Cuillin, and a black rabbit called Sooty. My brother, Iain also kept a hamster, but I can’t remember its name, or even if it had one. We spent most of the time retrieving it from a  variety of hiding places because it was a great escape artist.

The hamster was supposed to live in its cage by the hearth – the warmest place in the house. Unfortunately, our concern for its welfare led to its demise because it choked on a piece of cinder that it must have picked up to store in its mouth.

Pets After Immigration

When we came to Australia, to live in semi-rural Croydon, we inherited Tibby, a part Persian, part feral cat. We soon added other pets: Ossian ( a black labrador) and Lassie (a labrador cross), a blue tongue lizard, and a hare we thought was a rabbit!

When we moved from the rental property to our own home the menagerie grew: goldfish, more dogs and cats (strays and otherwise), plus chooks.  Notably, a black hen and a brown one – proceeds of a raffle for the ALP.

We named them Gough and Billy after the Prime Minister of the day (Gough Whitlam) and the leader of the Opposition (Billy Sneddon).

Ossian was bitten by a snake and died, but not before he and Tibby tussled for household supremacy, their tempestuous relationship always uneasy.

The old cat would sit on the edge of the laundry roof (it was a separate outhouse) close enough for Ossian to see. He’d bark and jump up hoping to grab her or at least knock the cat off her perch. Each bark resulted in a flinch from Tibby but she didn’t move away. I’m sure she enjoyed teasing Ossian and he never tired of reacting.

Along with a chum Ian McDonald, who was staying with us, I discovered Lassie. One Saturday morning, Ian and I were out exploring when we met an old lady leading a young dog with a couple of men’s ties knotted into a halter.

She explained that someone had dumped the dog from a car. She liked animals but her finances, advanced age and health made keeping the dog impractical.

‘No worries,’ I said and took the dog home.

The McInnes household always made room for one more, whether people or pets! Luckily, Mum fell in love with Lassie; the dog’s quiet, sedate behaviour the exact opposite to excitable Ossian.  My little sister, Rita put Lassie in a doll’s pram and wheeled her around like a baby and they developed a close bond.

Lassie lived to a good age before being hit by a car. Our family bereft, and so my older sister and brother searched newspaper advertisements and one evening, they came home with two Labrador pups – one dark-haired, the other a honey colour because ‘We couldn’t choose between them!’

Tommy Roe’s 1969 hit popular on the radio at the time so the puppies were named Heather and Honey.

They were boisterous and mischievous – Honey more so than Heather. My brother, George who was always first up at 5.30am to catch the train to Burnley where he was serving his apprenticeship with Russell Manufacturing would wake me around 6.00am so I could study for my HSC.

It was the only time the house was really quiet, however, Heather and Honey thought it was playtime.  I can still see George struggling to pull on his overalls, while Heather grabbed one trouser leg and Honey grabbed the other.

Years later, we found another dog wandering near the railway line with a severely broken paw, which had mended into a hook. We called this little terrier Faulty after Basil Fawlty.  A play on words, because of his disability, but also his strange, unpredictable personality.

Faulty used his paw to lever the lid off the plastic bin where Mum stored the dried cat food, he’d also hook any food on bench tops or tables onto the floor. The cats and Heather and Honey loved the unscheduled feasts!

One day, visitors commented on Faulty’s ingenuity and my brother Iain, known for his caustic wit, said, ‘Oh, he’s not that clever – I can still beat him at chess.’

Mordialloc Days

When John and I bought our house at Mordialloc in 1984, of course, we’d have a dog – I couldn’t imagine life without one!

Luckily for us, friends were returning to Northern Ireland and we adopted their Irish Setter, Orla, who was beautiful to look at and also lovely natured.  We were besotted, as were many of our new neighbours.

We discovered a dog-loving community in Mordialloc and Orla helped us make new friends. When Anne came along her first word was not ‘da, da or ‘mum, mum’, but ‘Orla’!

Orla and John 1985 Orla and Mairi 1985

Anne and Orla

Unfortunately, Orla had a stroke and died after an operation to remove a growth on her side. She was relatively young at nine-years-old and we were devastated.

I have strong memories of Orla sitting regally in the front passenger seat of John’s Commodore like King Canute when he came to pick me up from Elanora in Brighton where I was working at the time.

She’d have a few laps around the oval, feathers fluttering in the wind and looking absolutely happy and gorgeous until relegated to the back seat!

Anne never forgot Orla and although we had Chirstie, a tri-colour Collie for a brief time, Orla’s name crept into conversations daily until we rescued Goldie, an abandoned Labrador puppy, who lived until almost 15.

Anne & ChirstieGoldie as a pup

The story below features Goldie, but also DJ, another dog rescued after being mistreated. It is an example of how you can write stories about pets in a creative way.

DJ was 18 months old when we got him, but lived to be a grumpy old man and holds an indelible place in my heart. The grief I felt losing DJ compounded because I was going through Chemotherapy at the time and at a low ebb – another story that can be added later to a collection of life stories revealing the important milestones we remember.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A Bald Request
by Mairi Neil

John glanced over the top of his newspaper and smiled his thanks as I gave him a mug of tea. Gentle rain pattered on the tin roof of the veranda, Goldie luxuriated in the warmth of the summer evening, her breathing synchronised with the rhythm of the rain as she sprawled at her master’s feet. Every now and then, the air punctuated with a snore and twitch of her long hairy legs.

Did she dream of chasing sparrows and rock pigeons from her water bowl? Or maybe she relived running from side gate to side gate, guarding her territory against passersby who walked along Albert Street to the railway station, school or shops.

I tapped John’s shoulder, ‘The old girl spends a lot of time sleeping and snoring now, she could do with some company to perk her up.’

John looked up from his cryptic crossword, lips pursed, eyes wary. He knew me too well and his response abrupt, ‘We don’t need another dog while we have Goldie.’

At the mention of her name, the old dog’s snoring ceased; one ear stood erect like a sentry on duty.  I paused in front of John’s Jason recliner, ‘Anne and you have Goldie. MaryJane and I don’t exist when either of you is around.’

John removed his reading glasses and placed them on the coffee table with his pen. I was going to get his full attention.

His tone relaxed,  ‘Well, we bought Goldie for Anne to ease the pain of Chirstie’s premature death. MaryJane was a baby so Anne naturally assumed ownership.’

He massaged Goldie with a slippered foot, ‘And I feed the old girl. Of course, she’s going to stick close to me, like Orla and Chirstie before her!’

Whack! Whack! Goldie’s tail a metronome, the wooden deck vibrating and my sigh just audible.

‘I understand all that and a pet is a wonderful way of coping with grief.’

‘Agreed,’ said John, ‘… and when Goldie dies we’ll obviously get another dog.’

Goldie quivered as if understanding every word. Her tail flopped silent. Quick to reassure the old girl, John said, ‘A long time off, I hope.‘

He sipped his tea and picked up the spectacles to resume the evening ritual of solving The Age crossword.

Determined, I pushed on. ‘Grief isn’t just about death John. MaryJane’s best friend is moving to Gippsland next week.’

Only half-listening, John mumbled, ‘So?’

I felt my cheeks flame. Exasperation crept into my voice, ‘Emma’s been part of MaryJane’s life since they were babies. Don’t you remember how important your first best friend was? MaryJane’s devastated.’

For a moment, John closed his eyes. I imagined an image of Emma and MaryJane holding hands and giggling, merging with a recollection from his own childhood as it was with mine.

I recalled John describing the pain of saying goodbye to his school friend Danny and being dragged by his stepfather while told not ‘to blubber like a baby’.

I watched his face flush and defensive about underestimating MaryJane’s impending loss, he said, ‘And she’ll still be sad even with the distraction of a puppy.’

‘Not a puppy exactly… ’

John stared at me over the top of his glasses, probably trying to fathom what was coming next. The spectacles were placed into their case with deliberate care and the case snapped shut. He folded the crossword page into a manageable rectangle and let the rest of the paper crinkle to the floor. A startled, Goldie jumped up, assuming her ready-for-anything pose.

John patted her head, murmured reassuringly, ‘Good girl,’ before his lips twisted into a wry smile. ‘You’re right Goldie, we both need to be alert,’ then grinning at me he added, ‘but not alarmed, I hope?’

I grinned back acknowledging the reference to our erstwhile prime minister and the wasted taxpayer dollars on fridge magnets delivered to every household after 9/11, advising citizens to be ‘alert and not alarmed’ in the War Against Terror.

Heavier rain drummed on the roof. Resident possums foraging in the fig tree elicited a low growl from Goldie. A train rattled past in the distance, car tyres swished on wet streets.

John’s sea blue eyes glistened. ‘You always have marvellous timing, my love. Plying me with a drink before introducing some controversial issue and hovering like a cat watching cornered prey.’

I shuffled uncomfortably as he added, ‘And I don’t like the sound of exactly – in fact, I don’t like the way this conversation is heading.’

I picked up the abandoned newspaper and began to smooth and fold it methodically. ‘It’s just that I saw in the local paper that the young girl who assists the vet is…’

John’s interruption swift, ‘She’s always appealing for a home for unwanted pets. I don’t want some traumatised animal here.’

I waved the rolled newspaper in the direction of the chair, ‘John!  Goldie was from the pound.’ He flinched.

Goldie placed a protective paw on John’s knee and he rubbed her chest. She snuggled a wet snout between his leg and the arm of the chair, waited for her fur to be ruffled in favourite spots. Contrite, John said, ‘ but she was a puppy, love…’ and I finished the sentence, ‘… who had been mistreated.’

Touché, I thought!

’Oh, all right what’s this dog’s story.’

I took a deep breath. ‘Well he’s…’

With memories stirred, John interjected while vigorously rubbing Goldie behind her ears, ‘I remember this one when we first spotted her at the RSPCA pound. Never seen such long legs on a pup, a cross between a Labrador and a giraffe.’

I laughed.

‘And once the markings developed we realised she had Rhodesian Ridgeback…’

‘As well as Lab, Whippet, or Greyhound,’ added John, ‘a real Heinz 57 variety.’

I steered back to my purpose, ‘This little fellow is pure-bred.’

John almost spilt his tea, ‘A pedigreed dog abandoned?’ He glanced at the scar on his wrist. Shuddered at the memory of his six-year-old self bitten by the German Shepherd trained to be a guard dog. His stepfather mistreated the dog and it became aggressive like its master.

Suspicious, John said, ‘He’ll be pugnacious. I’m not having an angry dog here.’

I kissed his forehead, lightly stroked the scarred wrist. ‘Darling, when you hear little DJ’s story you’ll weep. I know you worry about Goldie’s arthritis and I’ve seen your eyes tear up when you look at her and realise she’s over twelve – in human years that’s 61…’

I smiled and added, ‘almost ready for the pension.’

The rain stopped but the air hummed as the insects of the night made their presence known.

Goldie fidgeted. John squirmed and blustered, ‘that’s because Goldie’s farts are getting worse as she gets older. If she flopped down near you and let one go your eyes would water too!’

He brushed dog hair from his trousers, ‘Little dogs are generally more in-the-house dogs. We’d need to buy more plug-in air fresheners –– extra expense on top of dog food!’

The love accumulated in our twenty years together palpable as his lips twitched and he tried to hold back a smile. I sensed victory.

Neck muscles loosened as the tension eased from my shoulders but I kept my voice matter-of-fact, ‘Yes, he will live inside most of the time because he doesn’t have any hair.’

The Jason recliner whipped upright with a loud metallic click.

‘You want to adopt a bald dog? For goodness sake, no wonder he’s abandoned.’

John shook his head in disbelief. ‘Who’d want a deformed dog? Or, was he burnt? Darling, please don’t tell me you want to take responsibility for an injured dog that’s going to cost a fortune in vet fees!’

At her master’s raised voice, Goldie shook her rear. Her tail wagged erratically, she pranced around, paws tapping and scraping on the decking. We both reached out to calm her, but I moved out of the way of the lethal weapon her tail had become, my voice soothing as I repeated, ‘calm down old girl.’

I hissed, ‘Panic over, John? May I please continue with some facts?’

‘Well, you nodded your head when I asked if the dog had been burnt.’

‘I know, but that isn’t why he’s bald. His breed has almost no hair – another reason why I think this dog is meant for MaryJane because she sometimes gets asthma.’

I lowered my voice, ‘The little fellow was deliberately burnt with cigarettes. He’s been starved and left out in the cold. ’

John exploded. ‘The cruelty of some people sickens me!’

He shook his head in bewilderment. ‘Why pay a lot of money for a purebred dog and then ill-treat it?’

Muted singing from cicadas and soft crackling from the overhead light the only intrusion as we pondered humanity’s capacity for brutality.

John shivered and I assumed he relived again his stepfather’s treatment of the German Shepherd. The stories of his stepfather’s abuse of the dog but also the treatment meted out to John and his mother saddened and angered me.

One day, John unwittingly poked his finger near the German Shepherd’s nostril. Chained and angry, the dog snapped and sharp teeth tore at John’s wrist. What followed still haunted John. His mother’s panic, her attempts to stop the bleeding, her worry about infection. His stepfather’s fury. ‘The dog’s tasted blood, he’ll have to go.’

John’s sobbing ended in a scream when the bullet from his stepfather’s rifle shattered the tethered dog’s skull. The silence that followed like a signal to his mother. She sobbed for a long time too. John often wondered if that was the moment she realised she had made a mistake remarrying.

I recalled the early days of Goldie’s settling in.

‘Do you remember how we had to lift Goldie over the threshold because previous owners had punished her if she tried to enter the house? She never made a sound for days and we thought it unusual until we found out she’d been debarked.’

John nodded. ‘Another act of brutality. Somewhere there’s a vet that should be struck off!’ Goldie inveigled her furry body between us as if reminiscing too.

John’s curiosity aroused, ‘This dog is naturally bald, you say?’

‘He’s a Hairless Chinese Crested Temple Dog. They look like those gremlins in the Disney movie: hair on the head, and around the ankles. Miniature Shetland ponies… that’s how they’re described because they trot and hold their head high like show ponies. They were rat-catchers for the Dowager Empress in China and also used aboard ships as ratters.’

‘Sounds a bit weird… and… ugly.’

‘To some people perhaps. In fact, one of them was voted the ugliest dog in the world.’

I smiled and shrugged, ‘But they’re loyal, sensitive, territorial, and highly intelligent and like nothing better than to curl on your lap like a cat.’

At the mention of a cat, Goldie bristled.

We laughed.

Our stroking hands and comforting noises provided immediate reassurance to the old dog. John’s blue eyes twinkled as the pulsating warmth of Goldie reinforced the joy she brought to our lives.

A light drizzle began massaging the roof; the scent of wet grass filled the evening air and the insects a gentle hum. Still fussing over Goldie, John whispered, ‘And when do we pick up the four-legged Yul Brynner?’

images-1

Animals are reliable, many full of love, true in their affections, predictable in their actions, grateful and loyal. Difficult standards for people to live up to.

Alfred A. Montapert

A truism indeed!

Aurora was accepted by DJ once Goldie died just as Goldie accepted DJ. Our pets great examples of love and tolerance…

Friday 13th – Lucky For Me that Memories are Made of Love

“The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them — words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.”

Stephen King, Different Seasons

Friday 13th, unlucky for some, but today, March 13, it is my Dad’s birthday. If he’d lived he would be 93 and would be expecting a Tattslotto ticket in at least one of his birthday cards because 13 was his lucky number.

835c24139526098d39b260742e416f8b

Dad had 13 letters in his name – George Taylor McInnes. He was born on the 13th March 1922; the thirteenth child in his family. I grew up with those statistics being recited regularly, but knew from my Irish Mother that the rest of us would not be so lucky with the number!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In fact, one Christmas Day, when Mum realised there would be 13 around the table, we had to telephone friends until eventually my young sister, Rita, found someone able to come at short notice, otherwise Mum would have sat in the kitchen eating her meal alone. Rita’s friend Louise saved the day and enjoyed two Christmas dinners.

Irish Mum had other superstitions to avoid disaster:

  • never put an umbrella up in the house,
  • don’t put new shoes on the table,
  • if you spill salt, throw a pinch over your left shoulder,
  • an itchy palm means you will come into money,
  • an itchy, hot ear means someone is speaking about you and if you think of a number and apply it to the alphabet that’s the initials of the person,
  • if you break a mirror expect seven years bad luck!

Other beliefs were crossing the palm of any baby you meet with silver (Mum had a store of 50 cent pieces for just such an occasion), inserting a coin if you give a purse or handbag as a present, and exchanging a coin if you ever receive a present of a knife or anything else that has a sharp edge – this even applies to brooches. And of course the well-known ‘must haves’ for a bride ‘something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.’

Dad was not superstitious, but indulged Mum, discretion being the better part of valour! He died in 2005 and I think of him every day and know that he loved me and my brothers and sisters unconditionally. He had his flaws, but was a good father and how I wish I could pick up the phone tomorrow and wish him a  happy birthday!

I gather together the dreams, fantasies, experiences that preoccupied me as a girl, that stay with me and appear and reappear in different shapes and forms in all my work. Without telling everything that happened, they document all that remains most vivid.

Bell Hooks

A Pause in Time

A blast of night air penetrates the cocooned warmth of the bed. I shiver and pull at the dishevelled blankets, then roll over to seek comfort from my older sister, Catriona, who sleeps undisturbed in the three-quarter sized bed we share. Long black ringlets cover her face except for a gleaming white pebble chin atop snugly tucked blankets.

I sneak another peek at the window. The yellowy-green chrysanthemums on the curtains still bear a lingering resemblance to the leering gargoyles of the nightmare that woke me up. Shadows cast by the dying moonlight and the glowing street lamp, create menacing monsters of the bedroom furniture.

Fear fuels my urgent whisper, ‘Treena, Treena please wake up,’ but the ramrod figure doesn’t respond. Despite the thudding of my heart, a murmur of familiar voices drifts through the partly open bedroom door and without hesitation, I scramble out of bed, dash for the doorway and slip through the narrow opening.

A short scurry to the staircase and my hand finds the comfort of the polished bannister. A filtered strip of moonlight from the landing window beams torch-like on the carpeted stairway. I descend on tiptoe, avoiding the stairs that creak, until the smell of cooking and promised warmth seeping from the kitchen, spurs a race to the bottom.

The icy coldness of the waxed linoleum of the lobby floor ends my flight and has me gasping in shock. If only slippers could magically appear. Hand-me-down floppiness unsuitable for silent speed, but so necessary as another Scottish winter day begins.

Breathlessly quivering, I gently twist the kitchen doorknob and push, squinting at the harsh incandescence of the naked light bulb, suspended from the whitewashed ceiling. Mum materialises beside the stove, stirring porridge in a large aluminium pot. Dad sits nearby, his folded arms resting on the grey Formica table; his newly scrubbed face ghostlike above soot-stained railway overalls. He senses my presence and stops mid-sentence, turning toward the cold breeze I’ve let in from the hall.

Our eyes meet. Smiles a mirror match. ‘Come into the warmth little…

Interrupting another sentence, I catapult into outstretched arms; burrow deep within his loving hug. Snug, safe, relaxed – not a monster in sight. Coal dust mingled with the distinctive smell of Lifebuoy soap, teases my nostrils. Rough stubble and wiry moustache scratched soft six-year-old skin.

With a knowing smile and without comment, Mum ladles porridge onto another plate. I bask in the joy of this attention; dip my spoon into Dad’s cup of Carnation Milk…

All too soon, the ceiling light vibrates as slamming doors, running feet and the flushing of the toilet, announce my three brothers are awake. Uneven thuds and bumps herald the usual morning competition as the boys race downstairs. A prolonged wail from baby Rita sends Mum hurrying up to collect the toddler.  Catriona still sleeps soundly.

Dad whispers, ‘here come the rest of the clan,’ and reluctantly places me on a nearby chair. Mum returns and so begins the breakfast melee that so enthralled Catriona’s friend when she visited. ‘Breakfast at your house is like a party,’ Wendy declared wide-eyed and envious.

I suppose it seemed like that to outsiders when the eight of us crowded around the table to eat porridge, toast and marmalade, or if it was the weekend, slice (Scottish sausage), egg and tattie (potato) scones. Unlike my parents’ Victorian upbringing when children were to ‘be seen and not heard,’ our mealtimes mostly noisy and cheerful affairs whether breakfast or supper. My parents’ mantra ‘don’t speak with your mouth full’ often ignored.

Although Irish, my mother cooked porridge the traditional Scottish way – soaking the steel-cut oats in water overnight and boiling in the morning, stirring with a wooden spoon to avoid lumps, and clockwise to prevent bad luck! The only additive, a sprinkling of salt.

I remember the shock of discovering on the migrant ship to Australia in November 1962 that others put sugar on their porridge! On P & O’s SS Orion other choices were tastier, the ‘snap crackle and pop’ of Kellog’s Rice Crispies and the crunch of Cornflakes. Liberally spread with cold milk and sugar, breakfast cereal became an enticing alternative when we arrived to live in a scorching Australian summer. However, toast spread with Robertson’s Golden Shred Marmalade or Mum’s homemade bramble (blackberry) jam consumed a loaf of bread regardless of the continent! The Portuguese gave English the word

Liberally spread with cold milk and sugar, breakfast cereal became an enticing alternative when we arrived to live in a scorching Australian summer. However, toast spread with Robertson’s Golden Shred Marmalade or Mum’s homemade bramble (blackberry) jam consumed a loaf of bread regardless of the continent!

The Portuguese gave English the word marmelada and shiploads of the fruit-based jelly. The first imports considered a digestive or dessert and eaten at supper. By the 18th century, tea and toast with marmalade became the standard Scottish breakfast with Scottish manufacturers favouring bitter Seville oranges and creating their own recipes. I can remember Mum searching the supermarket shelves in Australia to buy the imported tangy Scottish marmalade she loved. Some of us, however, acquired a taste for the Aussie staple of yeast laden Vegemite with breakfast toast. Nutritionists insist breakfast is the most important meal of the day and I can still hear my mother’s voice admonishing us not to leave the house ‘on an empty stomach’.

She regaled us with the tale of my Scottish papa who in the ‘Hungry 30s’ had only a spoonful of jam to ‘break his fast’. My parents struggled financially most of their working lives but I never experienced real hunger, a testimony to their hard work, good household management, and Mum’s eye for a bargain ‘eking out’ meat, and seasonal fruit and vegetables bought on special. Childhood meals consisted of plain food, with breakfast the plainest meal of all, only varied at weekends or holidays if our much-frazzled mother had the time and energy.

Dad, always diligent, tried to do his best for the family – at one stage as a new migrant, working three jobs to ensure our quality of life. The pressure to always provide for our big family must have been difficult, but he never shirked the responsibility. A shift worker for most of his working life, his body clock had to adjust and adapt to mealtimes and sleep patterns that affected his health – no doubt there were times when he went to work exhausted yet he contributed to church and community life, was active politically and in the trade union movement. When he worked for British Rail in Scotland, he’d walk 5 miles in the snow to get to Ladyburn Depot to drive the first train out, and a similar walk home when he finished on the last shift.

All his life Dad showed a work ethic not many people can rival, but more importantly he was my mentor in so many ways. Full of wisdom, patience and encouragement, he also had a keen sense of humour and sharp wit. Some of the best memories I have are of family mealtime discussions and riotous practical jokes and laughter. I count myself very lucky indeed!

img672         scans896

The personal is political – celebrating International Women’s Day 2015 and the right to be me!

jkrowling9

Yesterday, I marched in the city with my daughter, Anne and a few hundred others. We were a small, eclectic and vocal crowd who patiently listened to several speeches while trying to avoid the burning rays of a sunny Melbourne Sunday.

I observed and chatted to several fellow marchers and reflected on my early involvement in the women’s movement, the issues that were at the forefront in the 1970s and those still on the agenda today.

It was lovely to share the afternoon with my daughter and know that both my girls are active feminists, not only caring about gender equality, but prepared to act and speak out, loud and proud when the occasion demands.

11011195_866845246686956_4700737601187453240_n

The term ‘International Women’s Day’ is important because although many western women in the ‘first’ world appear to be doing very well thank you, there are millions of girls and women in other countries we refer to as ‘third’ world, who are born into slavery, denied education, beaten, raped, and basically controlled, manipulated and abused from the minute they are born till the day they die.

Yesterday, former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard mentioned the denial of education to 31 million girls as an example. In a previous post, I’ve highlighted the epidemic proportions of family violence and its impact on women and children. I’ve also written about another shameful scourge –  the suffering of women and children in detention, their only ‘crime’ seeking asylum in Australia thinking we are a haven from oppression.

There were several signs pointing out that we still have a long way to go even in Australia if we want true gender equality.

There are always politicians prepared to deny what was fought for: abortion has been decriminalised in Victoria for several years – let’s hope it remains a woman’s right to control her body.

But we are still struggling for equal pay for equal work, and for occupations seen as ‘mainly female’ to be as highly regarded and paid as well as those occupations deemed traditionally for males.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A woman who influenced me greatly in the 70s was Peggy Seeger and her rendition of  Gonna be An Engineer clever poetry (read the transcript), like most memorable songs. I was fortunate to meet Peggy and Ewan MacColl when they were brought out to Australia to tour by the AMWU in 1976 when John Halfpenny was Victorian Secretary and still cherish the double cassette produced on their tour.

I remember mercurial Melbourne played its part that night too with a summer storm. The room at Trades Hall steamed as we dried out, but our enthusiasm wasn’t dampened. To the patter of heavy rain,  we stamped our feet, clapped and roared to the folk duo’s amazing repertoire. A wonderful memory of the joyous feeling to be among like-minded thinkers!

When I went to university in Canberra in 1971, I joined Women’s Liberation. We met at Elizabeth Reid‘s house. This amazing woman became Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s advisor when the Labor Government was elected in 1972. A watershed appointment and one many people didn’t like.

It was the beginning of women being appointed to positions of power – and so began the culture of vilification of these same women.  Australia’s ‘tall poppy syndrome‘ ensures the media still goes into a frenzy when it denigrates women in power. (eg. the treatment of our first female Prime Minister,  Julia Gillard)

It would take decades before the media could handle issues concerning women with maturity, about the same time it took for Reid’s significance to sink in.

Sara Dowse, Griffith review 28

Liz and my bosom buddy for much of my time at university, author Drusilla Modjeska, were great influences on my philosophical and intellectual development. They gave me courage,  helped me find my voice and because of Drusilla, I began to believe I could be a writer – a dream and career still a work in progress!

post-39773-lost-in-life-people-who-took-a-cv1o

The early marches in Melbourne for International Women’s Day focused on equal pay for equal work and health issues such as abortion and contraception. A lot of young women were activists, and the 70s saw the inclusion of the Gay Liberation Movement too – of course, Australia still struggling with the idea of equal marriage rights for all until 2018.

We were noisy and I can remember lots of chanting and singing. We rewrote the words to many traditional songs with our own flavour and enjoyed the dulcet tones of musicians like Judy Small, another influential woman I admire.

Judy’s Mothers, Daughters, Wives, one of the best anti-war songs around, but also an amazing social commentary, as is my favourite one of Judy’s and so relevant now as we suffer the ‘war against terror’ scaremongering and demonisation of refugees – You Don’t Speak for Me. 

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

my protest uniform

DSC_0001

I am still active in the Union of Australian Women and equality before the law, at work and in our education and health system is very much on our agenda. Many people may not know about the Human Rights Law Centre, established in 2006 with half a dozen lawyers who care about humanity. It is an NGO relying on private donations from philanthropic organisations, other law firms and private individuals with a small contribution from the government.

Their independence from government important because they work on making the authorities fulfil obligations under the various national and international laws.

Human Rights Law Centre

There is an education component to their work as well as litigation, and they have publications plus a website with an amazing resources page. The copies of submissions under ‘Women’ include equal opportunity, decriminalization of abortion, family violence, and equal pay.

The Centre does a lot of work on refugee rights responding to government policies. They have also tackled Gay and Lesbian rights from the perspective of equality under the law. They do work for Amnesty International to improve Australia’s foreign policy. They monitor police powers and investigative techniques, keep abreast of the UN and other peak bodies and Australia’s compliance regarding international obligations and women’s rights, especially the right to be free from violence.

In September 2013, at a UAW Southern Branch meeting, Emily Christie, a human rights lawyer gave an eloquent and passionate rundown on her work, in discrimination law – particularly discrimination on the basis of disability, sex identity, and sexuality. Emily works for DLA Piper Australia, a global law firm, and is part of a pro bono team handling cases with a public interest aspect,  on behalf of people who may be too poor to go through normal legal channels. Emily’s work and experience cover a broad scope, she chose two areas to share with us:

  1. The story of Norrie who does not identify as male or female and the fact that under the law ‘she’ can’t be protected because there are no appropriate words to describe or protect someone of non-specific sex in current gender and identity laws.
  2. Changes in the law at the national and international level that push boundaries and close gaps in women’s rights, particularly regarding abortion and domestic violence.

Norrie was born male in Scotland with gender dysphoria. Convinced to take ‘the cure’ of sexual reassignment surgery Norrie couldn’t identify as female either. Under Australian law, after surgery, a birth certificate can be changed, but you couldn’t choose to be intersex – or a non- specific gender. Our society has definite gender boundaries. Norrie and others have basic problems like what toilet to use, who to marry and what to put on official forms – especially since so many insist on knowing your gender even if it should be irrelevant.

Norrie applied to have non-specific on ‘her’ birth certificate, which the Registrar had no problem with, but that decision made the news and the Attorney General intervened to insist male or female must be stated. Norrie took the decision to VCAT. Sex is not defined in any legislation – it is just taken as read and although losing the first appeal, Norrie won in the Court of Appeal. Unfortunately, this judgement was also appealed. The High Court case 2014 was successful, mainly because there is a groundswell of supporters for sexual diversity. There was also a change to the Federal Sex Discrimination Act on August 1, 2013, to make discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status unlawful.

The law has to define sex by what is happening in the real world, with categories broader than male or female. Norrie’s case records the first time judges recognised that people may not fit into a predetermined understanding of what they should be. The case is important because once people are recognised in law they can be protected and services provided for them. Gay, transgender, and intersex people now have protection at the federal level. There are new guidelines created for official forms like Passports, Centrelink, Medicare whereby a person’s sex is only asked if necessary, and there has to be the option of “X” (intersex) as well as male or female. Emily noted that the enrolment to vote forms have already been altered to reflect the updated law.

Australia is one of the first Western governments to take this step in law but cultural awareness will take some time. Interestingly, India and the Philippines have a cultural history of acknowledging an intersex community – with 6 million people in India identifying as intersex. Internationally Australia is ahead in laws pertaining to sex and gender diversity but not in marriage equality.

Unfortunately, because the section in UN Human Rights Charter still delineates marriage between male and female it is interpreted as being against same-sex marriage making it difficult to cite a UN convention in any legal argument. However, the UN Committee on Human Rights regarding sexuality may be conservative, but at least they are doing better on women’s rights.

International law has never been good on women’s rights, especially in the private sphere. The laws are written by men focussed on the public sphere with issues such as domestic violence and abortion unaddressed. This is changing with private issues made a public responsibility mirroring changes on the domestic front in Australia.

The UN has legislation about torture and this has been used to change the rhetoric on domestic violence enabling the use of international law to protect women at home. The UN recognises that gender discrimination and violence against women is systemic. Many governments are now forced to address these issues like war crimes.

A recent case in South America used international law to procure an abortion for a sick woman citing the denial would be tantamount to torture and cruel and inhumane.

However, because Australia does not have a Bill of Rights to protect human rights  (one of the few western countries that doesn’t), individuals can’t sue the government if they don’t fulfil their obligations. The best tool we have for change is Federal Government intervention when the States do something wrong: e.g. Tasmania was the last state to decriminalise homosexuality.

A man took the issue to the UN and because the Federal Government makes laws to deal with external issues and obligations under international treaties they can pull the states into line and make state laws invalid.

However, if the Federal government chooses to ignore international conventions there are no real consequences except a loss of reputation and being scolded before a review board as we have seen recently with the report into children in detention.

IWD  and Women’s Rights – Always worth Celebrating

I’m glad we celebrate International Women’s Day and I know we have a long way to go, especially changing cultural mindsets and challenging ingrained prejudices. However, tackling the injustices in the world and society is important – and speaking out for those still voiceless an imperative for those of us who live in a free society.

Last night, the ache in my ageing bones after traipsing through the city was definitely worth it! The right to protest and march in the street one I’ve enjoyed for a long time and to some people synonymous with who I am.   I hope I can still march on IWD next year, and the year after, and many years to come!

My desire a bit like the dream to be a writer. Each day I’ll face the blank page and start writing, editing and rewriting and hope people read my words…

original-441526-1

A Pool Of Memories

images-1.jpg

All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

This week, I asked my students to write about summer and gave them a selection of writing prompts. As I reflect on the lesson I remembered various summer activities and memories from childhood.

A few years ago some beancounter or councillor in the City of Croydon looked at the prime land taken up by Croydon Memorial Pool and decided rather than maintain the pool, it could be sold. The public outcry that followed the suggestion, retained the pool, which was built as a memorial to honour those who fought in the Second World War. I have an emotional attachment to Croydon swimming pool, a place that contributed to an idyllic childhood, although,  now living in Mordialloc and in close proximity to a beautiful beach,

Dad’s sister, Chrissie, met us at Station Pier when we arrived in Australia, on December 16th 1962, and the first piece of information she imparted to excite us about our future home was its closeness to a newly opened Olympic-sized swimming pool. Our journey from Scotland, on the month-long voyage aboard SS Orion, gave me my first experience of a swimming pool and along with three siblings, I attempted to swim. Accustomed to the joys of water play and poolside fun, the thought of continuing sessions on land did make our new home more inviting. (I suspect Aunt Chrissie realised this!)

Croydon, eighteen miles from Melbourne GPO and even further from the nearest beach, was considered ‘the sticks’  and for those living in the outer suburbs, summers were long and hot. A public swimming pool, therefore, considered a tremendous community asset for hundreds of children to spend hundreds of hours creating carefree memories.

The egalitarian pool open to everyone regardless of income or generation. Days spent there helped us enjoy adjusting to our new country and to cope with the culture shock of a sweltering Christmas, instead of sleet and snow.

Working class people rarely went on vacation, so the Croydon pool a wonderful alternative to driving the hour or two to the closest coastal beaches of Seaford and Edithvale. No freeways then.

That first summer, we attended the pool almost daily establishing a pattern of regular visits that continued for several years. Each day seemed like a holiday, especially with the crowd that our family and friends made. Fortunately, the entry cost minimal – there may even have been a discount for family groups, I can’t remember. I know we shared a locker, which caused ructions at times if people wanted to go home early and the keeper of the key resented getting out of the water! This sign should probably have been put at the entrance of the pool!

images-1Ignorant of skin cancer people lay smeared with coconut or baby oil, sunbaking on the grass or lying on the concrete surrounds. There were few trees in the early days with those planted still to mature. I recall many sleepless nights with painful burning skin despite mum’s home remedies of vinegar or cold tea compresses. No sunscreen then either.

A few exhausting hours playing at the pool made a walk home in the heat unattractive. We planned visits to coincide with Dad’s shifts or so someone else’s parents could pick us up. With no seat belt rules and few cars on the road, it was amazing how many kids could be crushed into Austin A30s, Morris Minors, Ford Consuls, FJ Holdens or Dad’s Vanguard Utility. We still arrived home hot and sweaty with the cooling benefits of the pool undone, but not as tired if we’d walked!

Mum and Dad were sticklers for ‘no swimming for an hour after you’ve eaten.’ My father’s older brother, John drowned in Corpus Christi in 1927, while serving at sea as an engineer. It was thought he took cramps because he went swimming too soon after a meal.

In addition, my father lived with a personal memory of a traumatic incident from his childhood when he nearly drowned. Therefore, our time at the pool regulated and rules enforced without compromise. Negotiated longer periods for swimming meant going mid-morning and leaving mid-afternoon. We may miss out catching up with chums and went hungry until we returned home; the only sustenance being a frozen Sunny Boy, or Choc Wedge, bought with locker refund money.

Our melting frozen treats held between soft wrinkled fingers, made us fly magnets. We’d sit on the kerb outside the pool waiting to be picked up, competing to see who could kill the most flies with our thongs. Mao Zedong would have been proud of us. Under his ‘four harms’ strategy 1958-62 he urged citizens to kill flies, mosquitoes, rats and sparrows, the four pests that damaged crops. The great campaign almost eliminated the common housefly as the Chinese swatted with zest.

We certainly shared their enthusiasm and aimed a death blow at every fly or mosquito we came across. Dad, who refused to wear thongs, laughed at us, saying, ‘ killing flies the best use for those stupid flip flops!’

Days at the pool hold magical memories: meeting friends at weekends or holidays, mixing with kids from different schools, swimming, diving, playing games and showing off our healthy physiques. Not everyone had the telephone connected, not everyone had a family car, opportunities for meeting and talking outside school hours were few.

Many romances started – and ended –  at the pool. The era of the ‘itsy bitsy teeny weeny’ bikini upon us, although bathers in the 1960s didn’t reveal the flesh of later fashions. However, Speedos were at the height of their popularity and once wet never left much to the imagination. Of course, ex-PM, Tony Abbott has made ‘budgie smugglers’ famous!

port-869179049-620x414.jpg

I made my one and only dive from a diving board at Croydon Pool—the small diving board, of course. I lacked the courage to do anything but jump off the big diving board and I only did that once. Through adult eyes, how small those boards look, yet the climb to the top of the ladder and the panic of spluttering chlorinated spume after hitting the water and scrabbling to return to the surface, still haunts me. As does the sting of bellyflops.

Herald certificate 1964

I passed the Herald Learn To Swim Certificate by swimming the 25 yards across the Croydon Pool and even managed to get my Junior Certificate after doing a rather pathetic dive in old clothes from the pool’s edge. Never good enough to be in the school swimming sports, I do remember sitting on the concrete steps cheering my brothers until hoarse. At one stage there were five McInnes’s at Croydon High School and we were all in Surrey House so I would have been waving yellow streamers.

The houses at school named after English counties: Surrey (yellow), Ashburton (red), Guildford (green) and Kent (blue), a veritable chanting rainbow around the pool.

Not a water baby, I preferred the gentle introduction of a dip in the toddler’s pool where the water warmed quickly on a hot day compared to being pushed into the freezing water of the big pool or splashed unmercifully if you tried to ease gradually down the steps at the side.

On some days, Croydon Pool so crowded, that the only safe way to enter the water was sliding into the pool from the edges. Many times an accidental knock left me gasping because I landed in the pool before I was psychologically prepared for the water temperature.

The shallow end of the pool the spot for one of our favourite games – diving for pennies. If we were broke someone would unpin their locker key from their togs and we’d dive for that. We never seemed to tire of playing tag or challenging each other to underwater tricks or races across the pool.

The sensation and taste of chlorinated water bubbling up my nostrils still vivid as we dared to venture into deeper water.  I can recall the ache in lungs as I struggled to complete laps rather than be stranded treading water somewhere in the pool out of my depth. The sandpaper roughness of the sides of the pool and the pain of scraped skin another not so pleasant memory.

Everyone skylarked, even though attendants seemed to really have eyes in the back of their heads and order ‘naughty’ children to take ‘time out’ or ‘be warned’. When bikinis became fashionable there was more than one embarrassing moment as girls were ‘dacked’, or had their tops untied.

Those dolphins who could swim underwater for an amazing length of time played pranks that sent excited squeals and gales of laughter reverberating across the pool, especially if they forced their way through your legs when least expected to tip you over – and under.

Several generations learnt to swim, socialise and have fun at the Croydon Pool. Now more than fifty years from my childhood and many homes have backyard pools, multiple family cars, and the time and money to travel to beaches or resorts. Croydon is no longer considered ‘the sticks,’ but has been absorbed into Melbourne’s urban sprawl.

However, I hope others value their memories of days spent at Croydon Pool and ensure it’s always a community asset.

Today,  schoolchildren, pensioner aerobic classes, toddlers having their first taste of water outside the bathtub, and anyone else cooling off or exercising must be happy the pool is there.

Croydon_Memorial_Pool-10798-30939.jpg
Photograph by Graeme Saunders

Aaah, summer – that long anticipated stretch of lazy, lingering days, free of responsibility and rife with possibility. It’s a time to hunt for insects, master handstands, practice swimming strokes, conquer trees, explore nooks and crannies, and make new friends.

Darrell Hammond.