About jml297

Reader, writer, lover of words and music.

Tai Chi at Eastwood on a Saturday Morning

Pigeons swirl about as music guides scores of people through gentle movements, conjuring ancient rhythms in smooth concerted actions. A mix of ages and nationalities united perhaps by the need to connect with something deeper, yet not alone. The rustle of jackets, bright glimpses of velvet satin.

It is hard not to be entranced by the motion, the coordination, the gentle sway of limbs. A sense of calm, reconnection; something personal performed in a public space. Ritualised movement in dappled winter sunshine with white cockatoos crying overhead.

Fans are used in some of the movements, the sharp flick of a wrist unfurling brightly coloured designs. Various leaders move amongst the large group to demonstrate actions or provide individual support to some of the participants.

The sense of tranquility is tangible, and people passing by on the way to somewhere else often pause to take in the scene, to stop for a brief moment to take in the atmosphere. Some people take photos, and others take short videos. It is enough to be here and to enjoy the moment, to marvel at the measured sense of calm rhythm and to witness something that has been a tradition for generations upon generations of people.

In a world in which the rate of change seems to be increasing exponentially, it is something else to simply enjoy a slower pace for a moment or two, even if it is vicariously.

[Photo: Tai Chi at Eastwood Mall]

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Writing Groups: Every One Is Different

It is well known that the writer’s lot can be a lonely one. Regardless of whether you are an occasional scribbler or someone who dedicates their working life to the task, it is seldom a group activity. In order to grow and develop as a writer, it is helpful to put on a brave face and go forth to find other writers.

The first writing group I joined was a well-established group in the central west. The meetings were structured, with writing news, the sharing of success stories around publications and submissions, mini-workshops and a session on critiquing work that had been prepared based on a prompt provided at the previous meeting. Feedback was also provided on work in progress if requested.

As is usually the case, there was a wide range of experience in the room, from published authors and a particularly prolific and successful bush ballad poet to new writers. The group was very supportive and even though I felt self-conscious, the group helped me develop my own writing style. It was also beneficial in learning how to present your work when sharing, to read it out clearly and with confidence, even if the piece was still a work in progress.

I did find the critique work challenging. It wasn’t just learning to be able to listen and take on critiques of your work but to be able to assess the work of others and to provide useful feedback. Liking a work isn’t enough in these situations: it is far more helpful to the writer to be told what worked well, what created ambivalence, and what jarred for the reader.

Since then I have experienced a couple of different writing group styles. I prefer an informal organisation, by which I mean a group that isn’t run as a writing group with not-for-profit reporting requirements. This requires administration and seems to take time and energy away from the writing. What I also like are groups where writing takes place. You might think that’s a given but it isn’t. There are groups where critiquing takes the focus, which is good, but I like it to be balanced somewhat with writing practice.

For me, that’s the gold of a writing group. Maybe it is due to the link with writing comprehension pieces in primary school where everyone had paper, a pen and their imagination. Once the topic was provided, the scratching commenced. Scratching on the paper, scratching of heads as ideas were coaxed into existence. A particular joy is the sheer variety of ideas that emerge from a single writing prompt, even from groups of people that have written together for a while. Sometimes there are eerie similarities in a writing prompt session or echoes of an image or idea that appear across the work of usually disparate writers. Being able to share these rough and raw pieces of writing, if you choose to, provides a jumping off point for extended pieces in the future.

Having the chance to meet fellow writers is an interesting experience, which can be exhilarating on a number of levels. It can genuinely foster growth in writing style, and open your mind to possibilities beyond what you might have come across if you remained chained to your desk at home.

Do you belong to a writing group?

[Photo: old typewriter]

Green

Green is my favourite colour. It is the colour of the leaves on the trees in my garden, the hue of the grass at different times of the year. It is the colour of new growth: fresh shoots signifying a change of season, the promise of the scents of spring.

It isn’t always new life. Sometimes it is the colour of fallen leaves, gum leaves with their seemingly infinite variety of shapes, some with bumps and modules along the veins of the leaves. They still carry their scent, a tang of evaporating bush oils.

Satin bowerbird

Satin bowerbird at Mt Tomah Botanic Gardens

There is the mottled green set in a pattern of scalloped feathers on the undercarriage of a satin bowerbird, either on females or the younger male birds up to the age of seven years, give or take, when their feathers take on the dark plume of blue-black satin.

Pine tree frond

Pine tree frond

Pine trees, tall and straight, are easily characterised by the green needles. Look closer on the trunk to see brown whorls and curling bark in contrast against the green foliage.

Old shop tile at Portland

Tile on old butcher shop at Portland

Polished green tiles in a country town reflect the passing cars and pedestrians. They have raised textures, a bulls head and a rams head. The building once housed a butcher shop, the tiles marked the trade.

Brush Farm at Eastwood, softened by greenery

Brush Farm at Eastwood, softened by greenery

Green is the ivy that curves with thickly cloying tendrils around the fenceposts before skirting along parts of the fence line. It sneaks into available space, softening the hard edges and drawing the eye. For that is what the colour green does.

What’s your favourite colour?

[Photo: green outlook at Lake Pillans, Lithgow]

Working With Words: Amanda Hampson, Author

When visiting a friend up north a couple of years back, she pressed a book into my hands and urged me to read it. The book was The Olive Sisters by Amanda Hampson and it was a most enjoyable read. Hampson has published several books, and the most recent is The Yellow Villa, set in France. She recently gave an author talk at Katoomba library and I was able to go along and listen as she spoke about her writing life.

One of the highlights of her childhood in a small town in New Zealand was library day on Fridays, and it was here where Hampson developed her love of books, working her way through myths and legends and adding Agatha Christie novels and true crime stories over the years. The desire to be a writer was clear to her from an early age, and she thought that a career in journalism would be the starting point.

Hampson moved to the UK and lived there and later moved to Australia. Whilst in the UK, she travelled extensively and visited France regularly, having developed a passion for all things French from her mother. It was during this time that Hampson began to write. This included short stories and articles, and two non-fiction books were published.

Her first published novel, The Olive Sisters, was written over a period of about five years and is a story told across two generations. It deals with the sense of isolation and loss of prestige that can be experienced when giving up city life for the country as part of a tree change. This had been inspired by her partner’s struggle with the change in status and loss of identity following a similar relocation.

Two for the Road was her second novel, set in the macho tow truck industry, and it is entertaining to read of some of the challenges she encountered in researching the industry as background for the novel. Uplifting, escapist reading was one of the motivations behind Hampson’s third novel, The French Perfumer; this provided a contrast to the focus on dark news which was also reflected in the literature at the time. This novel is set in the 1950s during a period of optimism and gracious fashion.

Hampson opened the floor to questions, which included one about how to resist the temptation to move from what you are currently working on to the Next Great Idea. She responded by speaking about the creative destructiveness of moving between projects and consequently not finishing anything. Jot down ideas, by all means, but don’t let it distract you from what you are currently working on. Another popular question for authors is around the writing process – what does this look like? Hampson said that when she begins a novel, she commits to writing 500 words a day at a minimum. Some days that is much easier than others, and once the creative flow takes over the word count increases, but having this minimum amount as a starting point helps to get words on the page.

Amanda Hampson’s website can be found here – it has extracts from her novels along with insights into her writing process. There is also an interesting article on her writing life on her publisher’s website.

[Photo: painted laneway at Hornsby, next to a bookshop]

On Ignoring the Shoulds

Recently I’ve felt heartened by reading a couple of blog posts about the pleasure and benefits of ignoring, even temporarily, the endless list of ‘shoulds’ in a day. These occur often without much conscious thought, or so it seems. We are conditioned to move from one task to the next, and there is usually something that requires attention or input. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: having a focus helps to create a sense of purpose, and there is something quite satisfying when a task is completed and can be moved off the real or mental to do list, even if it is only a temporary reprieve before it needs to be done again.

But there is something quite freeing in making the conscious decision to stop. Stop from moving from one task to the next. Accept that there is probably a better way to spend your time and yet still choose not to do it. Just sit and stare out at the garden, lose yourself for a while in a book or TV show, potter about and do small tasks that don’t necessarily appear on a list of things to be done but feel good to do anyway.

Like most people, I can usually think of plenty of things that could or should be done if a spare moment happens to materialise. But lately I’ve been choosing not to do it. Well, not right now anyway. There is a kind of satisfaction in recognising that whilst I could be doing whatever it is right now, I’m choosing not to. Instead, I’m going to sit in my favourite chair with a book that isn’t on my reading list and read a bit. Or stare out at the trees. Or watch clouds change shape. All of those shoulds can wait.

When was the last time you ignored the should-dos in your day?

This post was encouraged by I Really by Real Life of an MSW and A Day of Rest by Ann Coleman, whose blog posts arrived just when I needed them!

Cafe Culture

Are you able to work in a creative sense in a cafe? I can sometimes. A lot depends on what I’m working on and whether the sounds and smells around me are overwhelming. Some cafes are really noisy, others have a low background hum spiced with fragments of conversation which can be wound into possible future stories or just provide an interesting point of reference. People are largely unguarded in a cafe – they might be catching up with friends or having a conversation on the phone. Yes, even those one-sided conversations can provide a spark of interest for the eavesdropping writer.

One of my more memorable cafe experiences happened in a small country town. The promise of coffee and raisin toast lulled me inside, along with the cafe’s description as an emporium. After I ordered I had a wander around the cafe which had various shelves, book cases and tables set up with preloved goods. It was one of those places where you would probably see something different each time you visit.

There was a clutch of women at a couple of tables at the front of the cafe, and in the absence of any background music it was impossible not to hear the conversation between the group. I was writing up some notes on some things I’d spotted whilst roaming around the village, but within a short period of time the conversation caught my attention and I felt the need to jot down some of the things that one woman in particular was saying. It isn’t something I would normally do, but I felt like she may have been putting on a performance for an outside audience and it was too good to ignore.

I started to type up some of the phrases that the woman was saying. The trick was that as she was speaking, the woman was also bouncing around the shop, touching this, inspecting that. There were other people in the cafe but they were all women who seemed to know each other and weren’t particularly bothered by her antics.

I was jotting some of the colourful phrases down when suddenly she swooped towards me, placed a hand on my shoulder and asked me what I was doing.

‘Don’t mind me, love, I’m a bit nosy.’

Fortunately I had seen her approach and had managed to flick to another screen. Unfortunately it was a browser window which featured an in-depth article about a murder that had taken place in the town. My claim that I was just reading up on some local news probably didn’t ring true, but she tapped my shoulder and moved on to the next thing of interest.

I wasn’t being deliberately misleading or intrusive. Being able to catch turns of phrase or unguarded moments of conversation is good training for a writer’s ear. Often we speak in a kind of shorthand, or sentences drift off. There can be a lot of murmuring or hand gestures or facial expressions which don’t necessarily translate into the written word. But the cadences and rhythm can be picked up and this can help to provide an authentic tone to a future piece of written dialogue.

It isn’t unusual to be sitting at a cafe and working on a laptop or device. I’m not saying that the person that looks focused on something in front of them is recording your every word and gesture. But you might be inspiring them to some authentic writing in the future!

There is an entertaining post from Pauline Conolly about writers and cafes which you can find here.

[Photo: hot chocolate with home-made marshmallow at Paragon Cafe, Katoomba (before it closed) – one of my favourite scribble spots]

A Good Day Out

There is something that truly delights me about seeing birds when I’m out and about. This is easier at times than others, but I seem to spend a bit of time looking at the canopies of trees, patiently waiting to spot birds which are flying about and twittering above. I have learned to stand very still and to watch for branches being pulled about by birds on the hunt for nectar or insects.

There is a special kind of delight that I feel when I spot a bird that I’m not familiar with. As I am still relatively new at this bird spotting game, this happens fairly often. It can be frustrating to hear but not see a bird (and my ear for bird calls is very much a work in progress), or to see one flit by but not know what kind of bird it is. When I can, I will take a photo but again this can be an exercise in frustration as there are many blurred shots of wings, beaks and bird bums which really don’t help in identifying the complete bird.

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Wattle blooms to brighten a winter day

But then there are days when it comes together. I took a drive down to the Evans Lookout recently at Blackheath. I have been here before on sunset, and it was such an amazing moment when the sheer scale of the Grose valley was revealed that it took my breath away. Although it was an overcast day, I thought I’d take a look in daylight and revisit the view.

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Grose Valley views from Evans Lookout at Blackheath

The view was spectacular, with the shifting clouds creating vistas speckled with light and dark shadows. Throughout the valley, I could hear the ting of bellbirds way down below. Back at the car park, I was getting ready to get in my car when a small bird caught my eye. It was bouncing about, moving across the dirt path and bitumen with agile bounds. I followed it a little way and managed a photo or two before a car came in and it seemed to vanish. I started to drive out and saw a clutch of three birds, so I pulled over and grabbed my camera.

These birds were a delight to watch, dancing about with jaunty flicks of their tails. The lookout is a popular spot and they were not at all phased by me or my car. It was a treat to watch them bounce around, searching for insects.

Rockwarbler

A rockwarbler in-between hops at Evans Lookout

The next part of the challenge is to then identify the bird. One of my most used reference books is Birds of the Blue Mountains, but I had to flick through a field guide to identify the little birds as rockwarblers. These sweet birds are the only bird endemic to New South Wales, and they are usually found in areas where there is sandstone.

Just around the bend, I had to pull over again as a bird was on the road. Another bird that I wasn’t familiar with. I walked back and spotted it in a tree and took the photo below. It was a grey shrike-thrush, known for its beautiful calls.

Grey shrike-thrush

A grey shrike-thrush spotted near Evans Lookout

Spotting and identifying these birds bring a joy and satisfaction that is hard to convey. And it definitely makes it a good day out!

[Photo: rockwarbler hunting through leaves at the lookout]

Creative Challenges

I have learned to accept that my writing tends to ebb and flow. In an ideal world, I would diligently write every day or most days at least, and if I didn’t write then I would edit or research or plan the next writing project. There are times when I can be disciplined around my writing, then other times life crowds its way in and a day or two slips by, then a week. I have to scratch my head to think about when I last wrote something in a creative sense.

A few weeks ago I listened to a podcast interview with author Hedley Derenzie. Derenzie had been in a very dark place and had attempted suicide when feeling overwhelmed with grief, loneliness and disconnection. Her road to recovery was long and difficult, but one of her lifelines was a return to her creative path. Derenzie is a writer, but writing had not been a consistent presence in her life for some time. In a moment of inspiration, Derenzie committed to writing 2,000 words a day for a month. There were rules around this commitment, including the need for the day’s writing to be inspired from the events in the previous 24 hours which in turn encouraged reengagement with the world during her creative pilgrimage.

I have just started reading Write Way Home: Writing My Way Back To A Meaningful Life. This is the result of not only that month of writing and experiences, but reflections on what reengagement with creativity can mean. And it isn’t necessarily just for writers; Derenzie encourages connecting with those creative outlets which we love, but which tend to fall by the wayside when life gets busy, or when it is realised that they will not result in employment or income generation. It isn’t the outcome that matters here, it is the action and that sense of joy and engagement that creativity brings to each of us.

About a month ago I decided that I would write 250 words a day. This is my minimum goal and it can be in any format. It can be a personal piece, something creative or a blog post. The words can be a continuation of a story in progress or something entirely new. It isn’t the output that is important, it is the activity. It is early days, and I didn’t have an end date in mind, but I wanted to see if I could keep up what feels like a small commitment to write each day. So far, I’ve made it, even if it is sometimes the last thing I do before I call it a day. And I do feel more engaged, and my mind is finding a creative rhythm of sorts.

Do you set yourself creative challenges?

[Photo: close up of some creative craft adorning a tree in front of St Hilda’s Church at Katoomba]

Portland: The Town That Built Sydney

The industrial history of Portland is intrinsically linked with cement. It was the site of the first cement works in Australia which opened in 1902 and operated until 1991. Cement from Portland was shipped around Australia, and it played an integral role in the construction of Sydney in particular throughout the twentieth century.

The first European in the area was a surveyor called James Blackman who surveyed roads in 1820 through this part of Wiradjuri country. A lime kiln was built on 61 hectares of land selected by Thomas Murray in 1863, and in 1883 the railway arrived. The village of Portland was gazetted in 1894 and the name Portland is attributed to the limestone-rich Isle of Portland or for the Portland cement making process, depending on the source.

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The Glen Museum, located in a recently restored building which had been an early hospital at the Portland Cement Works

In 1902 the Portland Cement Works opened in the village. The Commonwealth Portland Cement Company Ltd had been registered in 1900 by Dr August Wilhelm Karl Scheidel on behalf of the New Zealand Mines Trust. Dr Scheidel designed the cement works and supervised their construction. He was regarded as a pioneer in industrial relations: he insured his employees against accidents, introduced eight hour work days at the site, and provided an ambulance service and accident ward which was shared with the town. Support was also provided for the construction of a hospital, built in 1913.

Recruitment of overseas labour in the early years was necessary due to difficulty in securing local labour, and it gave the village a cosmopolitan air. By 1912 the works were producing about 40% of Australia’s Portland Cement. Maximum levels of production were reached in 1928.

The works were nearly self-sufficient including water, coal, electricity and railway resources. The cement factory was a significant employer, and some families provided generations of workers. During the Great Depression there were massive layoffs and up to 80% of the workforce lost their jobs.

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Rear view of some of the remaining buildings of the Portland Cement Works

The old works site is classified as a historic landscape of approximately six hectares. It was the site of one of Australia’s most successful lime quarrying and cement manufacture enterprises, generating a product that was integral to the construction of many important structures in the state. It provided raw material from its own quarries “and a place for the long-term, large-scale production of world quality cement, using a succession of both local and imported machinery and labour.” (Source: NSW Office of Environment & Heritage)

Throughout New South Wales, Portland is significant in that it is one of the rare long-term single industry one-company towns. This relationship can be seen in the layout of the town and its civic amenities, including workers cottages, concrete roads and swimming pools. The scale of the operations, including powerhouse, boiler stack and various workshops provide significant links with industrial heritage.

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These cement silos were recently painted by Guido Van Helen and have become a popular tourist spot in Portland

The Portland Cement Works site is being progressively cleared for redevelopment under The Foundations Portland NSW. The proposal includes ecotourism, shopping centre, activity areas and artist precincts. It will be interesting to watch the site continue to evolve into the next phase of its development. Recently this has included the painting of murals on old cement silos by Guido Van Helten.

It is encouraging to see signs of life in an old industrial town – what does the future hold once the industry has moved on, technological changes take place and the workforce moves?

[Photo: part of the administration block in the Portland Cement Works precinct]

Poem: Mr Nobody by Anonymous

I know a funny little man,
As quiet as a mouse,
Who does the mischief that is done
In everybody’s house!
There’s no one ever sees his face,
And yet we all agree
That every plate we break was cracked
By Mr Nobody.

‘Tis he who always tears our books,
Who leaves the door ajar,
He pulls the buttons from our shirts,
And scatters pins afar;
That squeaking door will always squeak,
For prithee, don’t you see,
We leave the oiling to be done
By Mr Nobody.

He puts the damp wood upon the fire
That kettles cannot boil;
His are the feet that bring in mud,
And all the carpets soil.
The papers always are mislaid;
Who had them last, but he?
There’s no one tosses them about
But Mr Nobody.

The finger marks upon the door
By none of us are made;
We never leave the blinds unclosed,
To let the curtains fade.
The ink we never spill; the boots
That lying round you see
Are not our boots, – they all belong
To Mr Nobody.

With thanks to the Poetry Foundation – it was a joy to track down a poem I remember from my childhood. I think Mr Nobody is still out there somewhere!

[Photo: craft shop window display at Lindfield with lots of buttons in the background]