Chapter 16: The Eaglemont house

Mernda again became pregnant a few months later, and it was clear to us that our little cabin by the stream would be too small; we would have to find some new living accommodation. This began the most depressing period of my social existence - living in a 'good' house in East Malvern in a state of suburban cleanliness and convenience. I retained my humanness by riding a bicycle every day to work in Clifton Hill, a trip of about nine miles each way.

Mernda and I were determined to purchase land by some means or other, and build. The fact that my take-home pay was about £7 weekly, which barely kept us in the necessities of life, made no difference. We thought we would get some assistance for a deposit from her mother and pay her back as we lived in the building. Isabel 'Nina' Crutchfield was a wonderful mother to Mernda, and a sincere and unusual woman. She had unworldly, ingenuous, blue eyes and the same pioneering sense and originality as her own mother, but with a much less aggressive nature.

The bank executives had never given their employees any concessions concerning housing, which they could have done had they had a mind to. They probably feared overstepping their true role as custodians of public funds and believed that those whom they employed should not presume too much. However, in 1938 the employees managed a concession so narrow that I believe I was the only person ever able to take advantage of it. I had to find about £150 only for house and land, provided the house contract did not exceed £810. In the end this amount was contributed personally by the bank manager across the road, with whom we dealt every day. I made arrangements to repay 15/- every fortnight. These figures sound quite unreal today, but at the latter end of the Depression they were commonplace. A single-pound note was worth approximately a day's work. Mernda and I turned our eyes back towards the Yarra Valley, to a point approximately one mile north of the tiny pink-brick cottages in which McCubbin, Streeton, Condor, Roberts, Withers, and the rest of the original Impressionist painters created most of their famous 9" x 5" exhibition in the 1890s. It was about the same distance south of the Heide, the centre of the Modern painting movement to the north. I eventually bought a block of land in one of Burley Griffin's remarkable subdivisions for £105. It was at the junction of Mossman and Glenard Drive. The bank accepted, with reservations, the fact that the unmade road was a mile from public transport and that the structure I had designed was small but quite appropriate and original. The house was sited beneath a primordial redgum, which we heavily chopped back because in those days placing a house near a tree was considered little less than suicidal.

Burley Griffin's house, Pholiota, in the mid 1920s. Alistair's first house was built opposite in 1940. Photo: from the Eric Milton Nicholls collection, National Library of Australia

Mernda and I eventually signed a contract for the exact amount we could possibly afford. The week we were to start building coincided with the outbreak of World War II. I remember the events clearly. It was a Friday, and Chamberlain's ultimatum was to expire at 9 p.m. Melbourne time. Savings Bank reopened for an hour and a half on the traditional payday to allow depositors to pay in but not to withdraw funds - in the best Savings Bank manner. Having just put the books away while listening to the radio, we heard Big Ben strike the hour; following this came the solemn announcement that because no answer to the ultimatum had been received, a state of war existed between the Axis and the Western powers. I carefully made note of the objects in the office I was in, the carpets and the furniture, almost as if I were anticipating the immediate break-out of a conflagration. We were all in a new situation which would change things forever. Outside, as we ran to catch our train, a cold rain wet the street and slanted across our faces in ominous portent.

The big bang and the immediate action we feared did not really begin for nearly a whole year - a time period called 'the phony war'. There was immediate U-boat warfare and the sinking of large quantities of shipping. The British Expeditionary Force embarked for the continent, but Germany concerned itself with carving up Poland from below while Stalin broke it down from above. Poland had caused the eventual rift between Hitler and Stalin which precipitated events, and it was believed the Soviet had changed the ground rules and gone over to the other side.

It was immediately apparent how well Germany had prepared, and how unprepared most other nations were. The Poles set cavalry against Panzer tanks and dive-bombers, the most efficient fighting machines the world had ever seen. It was all over in a few hours; the great destruction had begun, especially for the Polish Jews.

The Royal Oak sunk by the German submarine U-47 14 October 1939 he Royal Oak sunk by the German submarine U-47 14 October 1939. Photo: http://www.scapaflowwrecks.com/wrecks/royal-oak/sinking.php

This all made no difference to the building of our house. Two men turned up each day, set out and dug the stump holes, and started erecting the frame. In England, meanwhile, gas masks were being issued and city children were being billeted in country districts; then came the digging of slit trenches and bomb shelters. Underneath the brave show of patriotism there was a sense of abject hopelessness. Where had the years gone to? Why were we so unprepared? The sinking of the battleship Royal Oak in the Scapa Flow Naval Base in the first few days showed the unpreparedness. A U-boat sailed right in, let its torpedoes go, and went out again. The way to bring an Englishman to life is to sink his ships. This event prompted the appointment of the unspeakable Winston Churchill to First Lord of the Admiralty without delay, and brought the country to some realisation of its jeopardy: Churchill alone had understood the true position. The Nazis made no immediate attempt to invade the Low Countries; instead they proceeded to complete the Ziegfield Line of fortification to oppose the Maginot Line. The Allies had virtually no modern aircraft. Many planes were still on the design board and in the tooling-up position. Australia, Canada, and other dominions declared war as preparations got underway.

Burley Griffin's Glenard subdivision Burley Griffin's Glenard subdivision. The Knox house was on the east of the intersection of Glenard and Mossman Drives

The most interesting aspect of our new house was that it was situated on the east side of a large triangular road reserve in Burley Griffin's brilliant, curving Glenard subdivision, one of three that had transformed the district into a landscape in its own right. He had developed the basically circular concept of Canberra into a freer, more flexible totality where it became apparent, if one studied it, that each allotment had been individually located so that no house would obscure a neighbour's view of the Yarra Valley, which lay below the escarpment on which they were situated. The allotments faced curving roads which narrowed to the rear and allowed two circular neighbourhood reserves devoid of traffic to be formed into intimate areas where children could wander adventurously, secretly, and safely. Burley Griffin was Australia's greatest claim to fame, because of him, we had the most advanced domestic-land use in the world during the first half of the twentieth century. I had missed my chance, the wonderful privilege to know the master personally. Both of my parents visited and appreciated him in the 1920s and had tried to persuade me to meet him because of my natural interest in building. But young adolescents are much more able to resist parents persuading them for their own good than to do the reverse. In this way I failed to meet the most influential designer I could ever have hoped to meet in my life - and at the most tender and influencible age. By a remarkable chain of events, Griffin had lived on the western side of the same triangle of road reserve which our land faced, so that we would have been neighbours had he remained in Heidelberg. His original lifestyle never appeared over-burdened with money problems. His fertile creativity was able to transcend all obstacles in one way or another. His Heidelberg house was only eight hundred square feet in plan. It was a simple square with two short wings protruding from each inside wall. These formed alcoves which only fully closed at the bathroom. The bedrooms were screened from the main living areas with leather curtains, which could be pushed aside at will so that the house could once again become a total space. His wife was partly of Indian descent, and there was just a trace of the wigwam about the whole concept. I never cease to wonder at how the Creator was preparing me for my life's work a decade before I was truly aware of His personal reality. This phenomenon extended from my father's valley boyhood and the Impressionist painters, all the way to Griffin's love and inspiration of the landscape thirty years later. I rediscovered my spiritual home for myself as I paddled up from Fairfield by canoe, like Jacob of old, to repossess my inheritance in 1939.

In the midst of the hiatus caused by the Depression, I was twenty-five years old and still had no real idea what I wanted to do with my life. Writing was hard to publish; poetry was not widely read; and I was not a painter. When I saw Griffin's design and the spirit of the cave it inspired, I reacted instinctually. The more the neighbours complained about his leaky buildings, the more highly I regarded the structures. They were a natural extension of the landscape they occupied. Design became one united and concerted reality. I knew and appreciated Newman College and the Capitol Theatre - Griffin's two greatest Victorian examples - and when I saw Castlecrag Crag and the Sydney incinerators, I comprehensively understood that architecture is an art - the art of building beautifully, no matter what utilitarian function the building fulfills. Although the ancient Vitruvius stated that architecture consisted of Beauty, Utility, and Stability, it was Beauty that came first and was the primary essential.

The opening year of the war passed without any appreciable change in our little community. I still rode my bicycle to the office, which was now located at Preston. Bank work became much busier as younger (male) employees left to join the fighting forces and girls took their places. As the drudgery increased, my hope of escape appeared lost indefinitely. I occupied a reserved occupation and was not allowed to volunteer for war service, not because of my young family but because of my position in the bank. It was a job most girls could certainly perform better than I did, but the pre-feminist-revolution attitudes would not allow them to prove it. The only concession made to females at that point was to allow married women to work in the bank.

Murray Griffin self portrait 1932 Murray Griffin self portrait 1932. The Griffins lived opposite in Burley Griffin's Lippincott house

Our neighbours on the other boundaries of our triangular reserve were unusual men and women. They included Fred Aldridge, his wife Mary, and their two children; Alan Nicholls, his wife Shirley and children, Peter, Margaret and Helen; and Murray and Norrie Griffin and their two sons. Fred was a leading journalist with the Sun newspaper. Alan became for many years the editor of the Age Literary Section. Murray was a fine artist who at that time specialised in woodcuts and who was later to become official War Artist in Malaya and in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. In between the Aldridges' house and the beautiful Burley Griffin house, which the master occupied for some years, was located the original Burley Griffin eight-hundred-square-foot building. It was really only a single area rented by John O'Brien - a university lecturer - and his wife, from some persons who realised the significance of the building and had kept it in existence by adding a fibrolite extension to it, thus giving it an acceptable rental value. I never knew how it came to be erected in the first place, because the Heidelberg Council savagely prevented the issuance of any building permits for small houses in the Valley landscape. I can only imagine that Burley Griffin's ingenious mind must have called it a building shed or a barn. Fred Ward and his wife - the modern-furniture designers - had originally occupied the Fred Aldridge house, adding the second-storey wing; it had served as their 'factory' when they produced their first furniture pieces more than ten years earlier. The whole of Eaglemont, which looked out over the Yarra Valley, was a major haunt for the later Impressionist painters. I became very familiar with the view because Uncle Willie Knox lived at the top of Carlsberg Road, which surmounted it all. The famous trio of Destorough Annear 'Chalet' houses of real architectural value fulfilled their historic role on the slopes of the Eyrie nearby, looking down on the river flats. As a visual totality it had no counterpart in the sub-continent.

Even the painter Streeton failed to capture this landscape's space and light in his famous canvas Still Glides the Stream and Shall Forever Glide. The subtle light and colour, with the twin peaks of the blue Dandenongs beyond, has in the end always defied the painter's skill. It was the indefinable relationship - between the summer browns of the folding paddocks and the reds and mauves of the evening light being reflected in the eastern sky - which produced what everyone who has been privileged to see it recognises as the ultimate Impressionist painters' landscape. David Davies's painting of Templestowe perhaps came closest to expressing the inexpressible. Both he and my uncle Willie caught the ethereal quality of the pale full moon as it would rise over the Dandenongs at sunset and tug at the spirits, strands of eternity made humanly understandable for a few minutes in the gloaming.

Wartime petrol-rationing had reduced road traffic to a minimum, but our little community generally wandered down to the Old England Hotel for a couple of beers on Saturday afternoons. The old part of the hotel had remained unaltered since its inception almost a century earlier when Heidelberg was founded. We had the parlour to ourselves except for some card players who habitually occupied a large oval table in the centre of a general area, and two or three others drinking at the bar on one side. A few papers, including the latest Bulletin, lay on the seats, and outside stood a handsome colt fidgetting and restless in a jinker, awaiting the return of his owner, who never emerged until the 6 p.m. closing time had been announced and no more beer was available. It is phenomenal that such a rustic scene could continue at a moment when the whole world was ablaze with war.

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