5 pieces of writing inspired by Mildura Writers Festival 2017



 At high school, when I was around 13 years of age, Helen Garner was for a brief time, my French teacher. If she’d remained my French teacher I’m sure I would have learned to speak French very well. But as I recall it, it was for only one term, then she left and ‘Mr Fish’ (or ‘Fishy’) took her place.

Mr Fish, was so-called by some of the girls because he was such a heavy smoker that he sucked-in and puffed-out his cheeks non-stop, like a fish. I thought it was a stupid name because he didn’t look like a fish. Though when I though of him much much later, after I had had the opportunity to observe certain facial features of certain French people, I thought maybe he actually was French. He had that big sort of French-looking nose. And very bushy eyebrows.

Mr Fish’s method of teaching was to walk slowly up and down the rows between the desks intoning, with an air of absolute boredom, French phrases meant to be repeated, whilst steadfastly refusing to allow any comment or disruptive chatter to penetrate his aura of indifference. But, oh my God! How he mumbled! I could hardly make out what he was saying and, close to tears of frustration and disappointment, put my fingers in my ears so as to not hear him speak. I had so wanted to learn to speak French just like Miss Garner (I’m sure we didn’t call her ‘Helen’) who looked sooo French I really thought she was French.

With her lovely French accent and her shiny brown centre-parted bob, and a tiny beauty-spot on her face with no (or very little) make-up; radiantly pregnant in her cork-platform wedgies and her short pinafores. I’m sure she gave hope to many girls who, until then, had been presented with pregnancy as a condition to be endured stoically by women who seemed to embrace a sexless unattractiveness by wearing weird-looking maternity outfits that seemed to say: this woman is pregnant, therefore she’s ugly! I kept that image of Miss Garner in my head when I was pregnant with my first child and refused to buy maternity clothes. Hearing ‘maternity clothes’ still makes me shudder a bit.

Miss Garner taught English as well as French, but not my class. My all-girls form had Mrs Bridge who was Irish and happy to give you a slap if you didn’t behave. The idea of children’s rights had not yet taken hold. Maybe it had with the young hippie teachers, but certainly not with teachers of Mrs Bridge’s generation. And curiously, or so it seemed to me at the time, Mrs Bridge’s son Andrew was a total mummy’s-boy.

One afternoon, a large number of the girls had gathered at Mrs Bridge’s house to rehearse a play – a comedy some of us had written. Included in the spread Mrs Bridge had prepared for afternoon tea, were vol-a-vents and we were given strict instructions to not reveal to Andrew that these pastry cases were filled with creamy lambs brains. Sensitive Andrew might feel nauseated. As we ate, all eyes were on Andrew, watching for him to pick up one of the little pastries. Why did Mrs Bridge even serve these things? Looking back, I can’t help attaching some sort of sexual significance to the incident. I can’t say exactly why this is but the mix of factors: an adolescent boy, a roomful of adolescent girls, a fearful mother, and something delicious that could make the boy sick. The more I think about it, the more like a pubescent sexual rite-of-passage it becomes.

Andrew took a pastry, scoffed it, then grabbed another, asking what the filling was. Silence! I don’t recall exactly what followed except that Mrs Bridge flapped nervously and Andrew clearly detected some sort of conspiracy. I wanted someone to tell him, just to see if he would throw up. At school on the following Monday, there was quite a bit of discussion about Andrew – and his mother. It turned out a couple of the girls had secretly told Andrew what the vol-a-vents filling was and, according to the girls, he was furious that his mother had teated him like a baby. No doubt the idea of being treated like a baby in front of all the girls had made him doubly-furious. 

  Mr Fish, who was probably just waiting it out til retirement, couldn’t care less about a bunch of early-adolescent females – whether they learned French or didn’t learn French. He would go out of the classroom every ten minutes or so to puff on his pipe in the corridor, then come back to boredly recite a few phrases. So, thanks to Mr Fish my enthusiasm died and I got no further with my study of the French language. But what I had learned, thanks to Miss Garner, I retained for a long time. I could probably still sing the French National Anthem without too much trouble.

Number 2. THE ART OF WRITING: Gail Jones and Helen Garner with Michael Meehan

The conversation between Gail Jones and Helen Garner was a relaxed and spontaneously organic chat that shifted between childhood memories and a reflection on the nature of memory.

Presenter Michael Meehan, as introductory preamble to this conversation, referenced the poet Wordsworth. ‘We take in experience with extraordinary vividness and power as children and we don’t really quite know what to do with it.’

Meehan paraphrased Wordsworth’s lines about the creative spirit being the ‘blending of childhood impressions with adult experience’.

Garner agreed that she made good use of her own childhood memories which, she said, seemed to increase with age and though very rich could be ‘quite unnerving’. And she warned, ‘You’ve got to be a bit careful because you can get a bit sentimental about it’.

It’s not exactly clear what she meant by this but Jones responded that when Wordsworth is cited by people it’s usually in a sentimental way and it’s easy to romanticise the ‘luminosity and the vivacity of childhood’. 

Jones, who speaks with quite some literary elegance, said she is temperamentally inclined towards the idea that we are haunted by our child-selves, ‘that time is a kind of haunting’. She talked about the phenomenology of time, how remembering is a kind of ‘flip-and-fold back’.

Garner remembered that childhood was no fun and a lot of hard work, that her own memories of childhood were of being ‘scared a lot, especially at school’ and this led to discussion about the struggles of boys (her grandsons) at school, about the different gender experience, and about her crush on the footy coach – which drew a lot of laughs from the audience.

The topic of sports and the body, led Jones to the ‘the erotics’ of places and landscapes – how they have made us, how ‘our embeddedness in places have given us ourselves’ and how we have come to know it through writing and reading.

Jones was inclined towards the esoteric turn-of-phrase, while Garner had a more the pragmatic approach, and this combination made for broad and interesting discussion.

Jones told a story about an aboriginal youth who was placed in her primary-school class when his family (who had never seen white people) was displaced by British testing of the Blue-Streak missile in the Kimberleys. The next day a number of participants said they had been unable to shake the vision of that boy from their minds.



LOLITAA number of times at Mildura Writers Festival author-talks, I heard an audience member ask a writer about his/her writing process. That’s something that seems to fascinate people.

As an exercise in the production of scholarly-style writing – or even something with a semblance of the academic style so beloved of universities – I thought I’d try to mould some random thoughts into cohesive form through the inclusion of literary citations and references. 

I began with Gail Jones:

Jones mused on the idea that time is spiral in shape, quoting Nabokov (1951 Speak, Memory) The spiral is a spiritualized circle. In the spiral form, the circle, uncoiled, has ceased to be vicious; it has been set free’.

I moved onto Nabokov’s best-known work, Lolita:

Lolita has been banned, criticised, declared a masterpiece, and seen as an allegorical treatise on American consumerism. More than fifty years after first publication, it is still a source of moral and literary contention and many readers are disturbed by what is felt to be a coercive call to empathise with the paedophilic protagonist-narrator.

I expanded to critical appreciation of the work:

Comments made by Nabokov, himself, about Humbert Humbert show the writer didn’t intend his seriously-flawed character to be likeable and it’s interesting to see how response to Humbert translates to the time in which a particular literary analysis is done. In a 1996 Newsweek article about Adrian Lyne’s not-yet-released film version of Lolita, David Gates refers to the recently-passed Prevention of Child Pornography Act and to the emergence of claims, particularly against  religious institutions.

Gates writes: In an interview, Nabokov once called Humbert a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear “touching”’, but most readers feel an exquisite tension between revulsion and reluctant empathy;


This is the point at which I would elaborate, if I was forming this into some sort of dissertation. The characters are fascinating but what is really fascinating is how attitudes to this taboo subject are informed by the times and how, in turn, these attitudes inform literary appreciation.


Going by reviews of Lolita from around the time the book was first published in America (1958-1959) it seems many literary critics were impressed by it’s darkly comic element.

A 1958 Time review judged it ‘more shocking because it is both intensely lyrical and wildly funny’, and New York Times critic Elizabeth Janeway (1958,The Tragedy of Man Driven by Desire) said it was ‘one of the funniest and one of the saddest books that will be published this year’.

The shockingness of the subject matter was a hurdle just too big for some people to surmount back in 1958, and the passage of time hasn’t made it any easier – with the comparatively recent public scrutiny of institutionalised paedophilia adding to discomfort.

Writing for The New York Review of Books in 1998, Michael Wood (1998, Revisiting Lolita) said ‘we really don’t know where we are: why we are laughing, what to do with our discomfort’.

I wonder if the discomfort and difficulty readers have, is less about the protagonist’s character and actions and more about the Lolita’s  indeterminate level of maturity. Childhood is ending and adolescence beginning and demarcation is imprecise and shifting. The combination of unintentional flirtatiousness and childish naivety, can be strangely discomforting to encounter.




When I was around 9 years of age, my grade 4 teacher, a late-middle-aged man with thinning brylcreemed hair, tiny round spectacles and a tiny pencil moustache, was dismissed from his job. Without warning, one day he was gone, and my class had a new teacher.

Not long after, probably a couple of weeks, he appeared at the school gate dressed in a suit and carrying a briefcase; eyes cast down and sorrow riding on his shoulders. It was morning playtime, and within seconds all eyes were upon him as children’s chatter hushed to whispers. He was on his way to see the headmaster. I now see that the appointment time was orchestrated by the headmaster to let us children witness this man’s discomfort and shame.

Some boys called out insults and threw pebbles at him and I was thrilled when one landed, but a big girl made them stop. As he went in through the school front-door, chatter erupted again.

The visit with the headmaster was brief and, as the teacher came back through the playground, one member of a small group of girls standing close to me urged her friends to say goodbye. Only two of the group crossed the short expanse of asphalt with her but one turned back mid-way, and the other stopped abruptly at an invisible perimeter beyond which arms could not reach. As the sympathetic girl hugged the departing teacher the headmaster, who was rarely seen in the playground, came into the yard, took a stance, and watched as the shamed teacher got into a car and was driven away.

The bell rang and we went back to our classrooms, and back to our learning; and the murky waters of that teacher’s desires were flooded by an incoming tide.

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TIME HAS GONE BY – Atmosphere Project

This is about memories and the passage of time. I hope it makes you feel melancholy. I certainly felt melancholy doing it.

I let the faded and damaged edges of the photos be seen. Like someone is looking at them and sadly remembering.

I wanted to do something in this area around latrobe Uni because I like it. It has so many small tracts of bush, it is easy to imagine what it was once like. It is so peaceful. And I find local history fascinating.

I looked for music on freemusicarchive.org and I found this lovely composition, ‘Nothing lasts Forever’ by a young Russian composer. He goes by the name of Kai Engel but his real name is long and Russian.  I thought it was perfect.

I had originally planned to use recordings of birds and so forth, to have the natural sounds of this place from so long ago. I had a few goes at this but there was just too much traffic noise – no matter where I went. And the noisiest birds were those Indian Mynah birds which wouldn’t have been around back then.

I also had a ‘great’ idea to record the wind. I imagined how good that was going to sound. But it just blew into my iphone aperture and sounded like slapping.

I did a lot of searching online for information, particularly to find maps and photos. I planned to go to the State Library – but I didn’t have time and I don’t much like going into the city. I did end up joining the State Library, though, as they have a ‘request’ service to get all these old stored records. To me, that stuff is just fascinating.

I walked around the precinct very early on Sunday morning ( I was so stressed about getting it done I hadn’t actually been to sleep!) and took quite a few photos. I only used one. It is of one of the same buildings shown in the collection of old photos.

The photos are from the Australian Heritage database (I think). They were taken in the 1920s (according to the person who donated them) and show how the area around the perimeter of Latrobe University looked when it was the mental health precinct of Mont Park, which had many buildings. A number of these buildings are still standing. Some are owned by Latrobe Uni and are being used.

It seems (from the information I could find) that the hospital first opened in 1911 and that the various buildings were erected at different times – up to the late 1950s or early 1960s – and used for different purposes.

A newspaper report of 1916 announces tenders for the building of a military hospital in the precinct.

A map from 1936 shows the Macleod Repatriation Hospital and the Gresswell Sanitorium on the perimeter of Mont Park, as well as the the huge Bundoora Repatriation Hospital on the other side of Plenty Road and Janefield Colony for Mental Defectives (help!) on what I think is now Grimshaw Street.

At the bottom of this same map, someone has handwritten ‘Larundel’. This seems to indicate that the Larundel buildings were originally part of the Mont Park precinct. At some stage, the individual institutions became administered separately.

A report from 1937 says more buildings are to be erected for the transfer of patients from other mental asylums.

I had some problems with this video – as I always do because I have virtually no idea what the settings even mean! I managed to put my first version – it’s m4v I think(?) through compressor and it is pretty good. I don’t mind the bit of instability because it adds to the ethereal quality(of times long gone).

But I couldn’t get that file onto you tube or onto this blogsite so I had to do another version (this one here) which is not so good, unfortunately.

In spite of this, I am very happy with my video. It conveys, to me, what I wanted to convey. It is not original in any way. I am just copying things I have seen and liked.

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MONT PARK history project

Mont Park Map



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Filming my daughter filming the sea, early morning at Altona Beach. I was going to use these visuals for my AUDIO PROJECT(audio response to colour) but then found it had to be JUST audio so …
Filmed with my Iphone, edited with Final Cut Pro, bit clunky at the end but, oh well, I’ll work it out eventually.

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AW&AW Inc.

GROCERY6.jpgThe ANDY WARHOL/AI WEIWEI combined exhibition of works at the National Gallery of Victoria places works by the living artist together with works by the dead artist he so greatly admires and appreciates. Viewed side-by-side, Warhol’s legacy is clearly seen in Ai Weiwei’s imitation of certain elements of Warhol’s work but something different is produced.


Warhol took ordinary grocery items, reproducing them over and over in different mediums to produce things of beauty from the seemingly-mundane. Ai has also taken mass-produced objects, such as the Forever bicycle, and taken them beyond their first function. Writing in his now-gone blog, Ai Weiwei talks about Warhol’s high media exposure and how he only retrospectively came to be taken seriously as an artist. He says of Warhol, ’…his milieu of works so far exceeded the expectations of the era that he changed the reality and ideals of American art.’


Ai Weiwei, who lived and practiced art for many years in New York says, ‘Understand him and you will understand the United States, for he is the most tragically beautiful legend in the history of American art, a unique artist of purely American values: he perfected art, and his departure brought the end of an era.’

Set alongside Warhol’s montage of Jackie Kennedy, Ai’s caricature-like triple portrait of Mao, has stylistic similarities. Each work has the simple and clear cartoonish effect of alternating monochromatic images against a different-coloured background. In the case of Mao, the effect is subversively comic, while Warhol’s Jackie Kennedy lays out snapshots of profound moments in a life.JACKIE1.jpg


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What goes up must come down. Some of these bird balloons have lost their helium – or whatever substance is being used to keep them afloat in this narrow but high, somewhat confined, space. Some better air-venting is needed to keep these birds air-borne and up there because they are falling, falling, falling, way too fast (apart from the one that got away and is now wedged between the ceiling and a pipe) and too far to the ground unless I, and the two or three other patrons currently in the space, strenuously punch them upwards. 


They look rather pretty when they’re floating on a current of air but something isn’t working. I have the impression of the tired tail-end of a kids party: the party food is consumed, the children are exhausted or gone home, and the balloons are deflated.

As a tribute and companion piece to Warhol’s Silver Clouds, 1966, Ai Weiwei’s Caonima Balloon and Bird Balloons, presented here as part of the Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, is a good idea not-quite-executed. It needs a bigger space and and air-currents that do the trick.

Warhol’s Silver Clouds, also replicated in this combined exhibition, was originally conceived of as floating lights and created in collaboration with engineer Billy Klüver. It was first exhibited in 1966 at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York.

Blogging about the Silver Clouds, Matthew DiClemente, Art Handler at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh says:

A Silver Cloud’s lifecycle is chocked full of variables and varies greatly from balloon to balloon. Some balloons last a full 7 days, while others don’t make it past the inflation process. Other factors that affect a balloon’s longevity include random mishaps, Clouds crashing into one another, valve malfunction, and patron interaction; the Clouds are actually quite delicate. One of the more surprising influences on the Silver Clouds are fluctuations in atmospheric pressure.


And that’s the thing about the installation as an art-form, particularly after the creator of the original concept is simply not available:  it’s so variable and so dependent on the talents and perspectives of others, that you have to ask how close it comes to the original concept. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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Performance Art of a distinct personal political purpose, Ai Weiwei’s With Flowers project, 2013-15, involved the daily placement of a bouquet of flowers in the basket of a bicycle parked outside the gates of his studio, under the watchful gaze of a CCTV camera. Documented and dispersed via social media photo-sharing, his passive but persuasive protest worked.

In 2011 Ai Weiwei had been arrested on the orders of Chinese authorities and was detained for eighty-one days without charge. Upon release, his passport had been revoked and his studio in Beijing had been put under constant surveillance. His passport was finally returned in 2015 after 600 days of the daily flower-placing ritual.


Replicated in the NGV exhibition, the individual flower images form a grid-like but beautifully-papered wall in front of which stands a bicycle with a bouquet in its’ basket. It is a visually arresting, invitingly accessible display of hope, promise and big bright beauty.

On an adjacent wall of that same room, the stylistic influence of Warhol on Ai’s With Flowers, is shown by Warhol’s Flowers, 1970, a smaller grid of individual silkscreened (with pencil and acrylic) images from a series first exhibited in 1964.


In both Flowers and With Flowers, the ordered and precise placement of the images in grid-form shows how seeming-duplicates, when presented en-masse, are distinguished by the tiny individual differences that make the group a powerful whole.

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The Tree of Light

A perfectly positioned chandelier tree set against the backdrop of the ever-beautiful, never-dated, now-iconic waterwall that fronts the National Gallery of Victoria, glimmers for patrons on their way to the Andy Warhol/Ai Weiwei exhibition. Sunlight that filters through the slow-trickling curtain of running water is caught in the crystal drops of the tree, lit from within, that refract their light in exchange with water droplets on the window pane.

From the curving steel branches of the crystal-tree, strings of crystals hang in clusters, like bunches of fairyland lilacs, or magic Chinese lanterns. The tinkling strains of far-off music must surely be heard when the hall falls silent.


Chandelier with Restored Han Dynasty Lamps for the Emperor 2 (2015) is a new work, especially developed by Ai Weiwei for this exhibition at the NGV. The five-metre-tall new installation is from the Chandelier series of crystal and light which the artist has produced since 2002. The shape of the work, the artist says, was inspired by an antique Han dynasty lamp discovered in an emperor’s tomb and is said to represent eternal life and light as it would have housed a candle and been used to light the underground tomb of the emperor.


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At the back of the main NGV foyer, in clear view to patrons approaching the Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei exhibition, a construction of identical and familiar everyday functional objects, through repetition and placement, forms an architectural structure that is like an ascending stairway through a light-filled cloud that draws the eye upwards.

Like a shimmering, vibrant, rising congregation, whose strength of unified purpose produces  a sound much bigger than the sum of its’ individual voices, the angles and circles created by  stainless steel bicycle frames explode in shifting shapes as a seemingly static structure is viewed from a multiplicity of perspectives.


This reconstruction is one of the Forever Bicycles series (Ai Weiwei, 2015) which, composed of almost 1500 bicycles, has appeared and reappeared in a number of installations since 2003. The artist has described how the popular Forever brand of bicycles so indelibly marks his growing-up in China.


‘In our village there were no real roads and we always had to ride bikes to carry things. I thought they would be a good public sculpture because people relate to bikes. They’re designated for the body and operated with your body. There are a few things today that are like that.’

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This is my Audio/Colour Project

This is my first attempt to put together an AUDIO. As per specifics of assessment criteria – it is a response to a colour.

My colour is GREEN. It’s all about nature. Birds, particularly.

The music and the rhythmic bird sounds are from ‘freesound’. The middle bit – I recorded at Latrobe as the sun was going down. The last squawking birds are from ‘freesound’.

I had the idea of using other ‘nature’ sounds. I recorded some frogs. There are lots of nature sounds around Latrobe – in the breaks between traffic noise. I used my trusty iPhone.

It’s very basic but it took soooo long to do. It was mostly guesswork. Hit & (lots of) miss. I used finalcutpro – which I have only very little familiarity with – to edit. I put the sound on 2 layers so the music and birds overlapped.

After various attempts to save, I tried to put it through compressor- which I have not got the first clue about. Still wouldn’t save! I think I eventually saved it by changing the format – though I can’t be sure about this because I’m not exactly sure what I did!

Then finally, FINALLY, I saved it on soundcloud. But I couldn’t manage to share to wordpress. So I ended up emailing the link to myself.

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