Hard Times

The year 1961 also saw the first postwar recession in Australia. Fifteen years of euphoria vanished 'like a watch in the night when it is gone'. My building operations were brought to a low ebb, but I remained just solvent through a single contract to build a large house I had designed in Scoresby, an outer area near Ferntree Gully, for a Mrs Benedikt. Many building companies went to the wall at this time as credit dried up and we faced the first breath of winter's discontent for more than ten years.

I had in the meantime had my plans approved and entered into the contract to build Mrs Benedikt's house, which was to be a great gesture to her children and a monument to herself. She had been born in Eastern Europe and had developed a very successful business in women's hats. She had endured hard times in the early stages, which gave her a great sense of survival in success. She was not an easy client, and had probably come to me as a last resort. I found her very 'Jewish' in her accent and approach, but fair in the final analysis. The design was quite good, well-sited, and could prove a good result for all concerned if we all kept our cool. There was another building on her land in which she, her third husband, and an engineer son-in-law had gathered prior to making a site inspection of the new work at around its halfway stage. It was a wet day, and I saw the entourage arriving to give their decision.

South East elevation Benedikt houseThe South East elevation of the Benedikt house, Glenifer Farm, Scoresby, 1961

I desperately needed a 'draw' to enable me to continue. Any delay in this matter would mean a hasty cessation of work. The three entered through the front door, and I overheard them from another room. General sounds of approval came from the inspection of the kitchen, the dining room, and the children's wing. All was going according to plan! When they entered the main living room, however, a series of urgent cries of 'No! No!' split the silence. Mrs Benedikt had reverted to an Eastern European panic. It was a great crisis - the moment of death, or survival. Husband and son-in-law tried to pacify her. 'Rose,' they explained, 'this is how modern buildings are designed', but she just gasped asthmatically in high frustration. Much to my own relief, I felt no panic at all - just cold realism. 'Don't argue', I told the men. 'What is wrong, Mrs Benedikt? What don't you like?' 'It's all that wood and those low ceilings', she gestured, unable to bear the sight that confronted her. I left the group alone for a minute and went into the other room to consider what could be done. One thing was clear: the roof must be raised, and I knew who would pay for it! I looked out over the flats of the Dandenong area, the wintry afternoon sun gradually disappearing in the early-evening mist. It happened to be the shortest day in the year, and I realised any solution would be required in less than thirty minutes, or I would be insolvent. Suddenly, a warm flush enlivened my hopelessness. I returned to Mrs Benedikt and said, 'If the roof were a foot higher, would that suit you?' 'Yes', she sobbed, 'anything to get rid of all those low timber ceilings'. I questioned her son-in-law, who indicated that he was delighted with his wing. The kitchen had a high ceiling, and the dining room, quite baronial, was situated next to the upstairs-bedroom section. Since Mrs Benedikt had already approved those areas I was able to say, 'If I raise the great living room one foot it would solve the matter'. She agreed, so I briefed the carpenters, who were packing up to leave, be there early next morning to lift up the roof with jacks, and continue the work. Mrs Benedikt readily agreed to my offer to telephone her office the next morning; I would report to her that the roof work had been completed, and would then collect my cheque. I don't think the men who worked for me ever realised how much a part Providence had played - at various times in their employment with me - in my ability to pay them their weekly wages. I mistakenly thought this was a crisis to end all crises. There were more to come.

As the Benedikt house approached completion, my cash-flow position deteriorated significantly. There was little new work to compensate for the plethora of unpaid accounts that kept coming in, some for the second or third time. I could not fathom how I could feel so blessed in my spiritual activities and so neglected in my day-to-day work situation. I was convinced that our youth work was God's will, and equally convinced that I would not be tested beyond my abilities. It all seemed too unreasonable. I felt positive I was doing satisfactory work, yet I was becoming insolvent at the same time. Our clients, even Mrs Benedikt, were satisfied, which was no easy task; yet time after time, some event or circumstance intervened to turn a potential profit into an eventual loss. Margot went to hospital for her third confinement in the midst of this financial dilemma, and our son Alistair was born on 1 December 1962. I found myself living alone in the experimental house I had erected on the bottom of our three acres during the interim to enable us to let the largest building on the property. It was a doubly confusing situation, because I had been miraculously able to borrow money in the recession to finance this project; I took this to be a sign from above that I would come through my temporary difficulties. The building system embodied original concepts that could hardly help but succeed; yet instead, I was getting into a more difficult situation all the time. As I lay in bed early on 4 December thinking over which way to turn next, I suddenly felt as if a great weight were descending on me to crush me into a flat smear.

For once, Peter was serious and thoughtful, and when I said, 'Peter, I think we are insolvent and should terminate our building activities forthwith', he quietly agreed with me. We went inside and agreed we should draw up a rough trial balance and get this radical decision into action without delay. An hour later, it was becoming apparent that our real problem was not a business failure, but a shortage of money - a situation that would inevitably improve as our work proceeded. At this precise moment the phone rang; I answered it, only to hear the unwelcome voice of the bank manager on the other end of the line. He was a pleasant man, but his was the voice I least wanted to hear; he had been calling fairly consistently over the past few months to see what money would be coming forward to relieve our perennial financial pressures. I got in first: 'Mr Vercoe', I began, 'I am hopeful that our financial position is not as difficult as I thought. In a few months we could be once again trading normally. What I need immediately is some temporary financial assistance to get over this pre-Christmas hiatus'. I then told him, without mentioning names, that I had a friend whom I thought would guarantee me to a reasonable extent in the matter. In the back of my mind I could see Dave Graham graciously coming to my assistance, but my concern was whether the bank would reciprocate in the difficult prevailing financial conditions. The manager, who was normally as affable as he was unbending, took my breath away. 'You've got assets - haven't you, Mr Knox?' he said. 'What's the matter with them?' I had thought they would be unacceptable in those dear, departed times when credit seemed mainly available to those who didn't need it - a practice in the prevailing English banking system designed to keep the working class in their proper station. 'Would you accept them?' I asked incredulously, because money for building was just not available at that time. 'Oh, I think so', came the answer. 'Look, I actually wanted to speak to Peter', he continued. 'Get him to bring the figures down to me. If it's as you say, I think we may be able to do something. You needn't bother to come yourself'. This complete reversal of position without any effort on my part made me realise that God was very much there after all; from that moment forward, I determined to let Him take over completely.

I still had to see the redoubtable Mrs Benedikt with my final accounts - a situation young builders do not relish, even with the most benign clients. I went down to her new house with Peter a few days before the Christmas break. The news was not good. Mrs Benedikt had had an awful day. I was in no shape for prolonged haggling over justifiable extras, and my loyal friend Peter was not designed for verbal slugging. He flourished amid quiet decision making, with a little give-and-take on both sides. I had earnestly prayed that whatever else happened at this interview, the whole matter would be settled without argument.

When we set eyes on Mrs Benedikt and her husband, it took all of my faith to believe such a course possible. We ensconced ourselves in the living room (with its newly raised ceilings), were given a drink, and felt chilled by the first sentence of our lady client's reply to our claims. It was not at all encouraging. I answered that this item was one she had ordered and that I had simply done as requested. There was a moment's pause. A slight shadow seemed to lift off of Mrs Benedikt's face. Her voice changed. 'I tell you what we will do, Mr Knox. I will pay this account less 500 Pounds immediately. You complete the outstanding items, and I will settle the rest'. Peter and I gulped silently; the discussion was over, and his whisky was only half finished. Five minutes later, they were putting us into our cars and wishing us a Merry Christmas, and our redoubtable client was as affable as someone would be who had never had a difficult or hostile thought in her life.

Alistair KnoxAlistair Knox

The following year saw the pre-Christmas optimism diminish as our work dwindled to nothing. The expected profits whittled away, and it became obvious that the test that had encouraged me had said nothing about taking the problems away - only about giving me the ability to bear them. The past had to be settled, but now I was ready to do it. Margot and I owned three buildings, on two adjacent pieces of land. I determined to sell them and start again, if possible. I felt that since I intended to use the funds to pay off my creditors, I would be permitted to do so without change of price, without any agent, and at the right moment. I had no idea what Margot and I should or could do except look around our district for land that I could not, at the time, afford. I made the problem a matter of prayer in which I asked the Lord to give an answer 'Yes' or 'No' from the Scriptures as to whether or not I was to build at all. It all seemed so outlandish that I nearly didn't ask. I kept saying, 'In the Scriptures, God never told anyone to build a house'. In the meantime, I made my best builder, Peter Hellemons, my partner in a new building company; this left me free to get on with planning. Except for the last few months, the combined activity had been so complicated that I found it nearly impossible to do anything with sufficiently detailed accuracy. I was always so far behind with my accounting. I could succeed at either planning or building; it was combining the two that was difficult. The money I made from planning was swallowed up in the building costs. The whole process of dealing with the clients - from conceptual thoughts about designing a building to the placing of every screw and nail and the settling of every account - was so stretched out that it was almost impossible. Even the best clients would occasionally phone up years later expecting something to be done, for friendship's sake, that was beyond the bounds of sanity.

The gradual return of contract work allowed me to plan, receive payment for it, and then hand the construction on to Peter, who was able to build and return half the profit as well. For the first time, I was actually accumulating a little money. I also made it a condition of my prayers that I believe that if I were told to build a new house, it was to be done only for free, or for raising loan money. I was putting my faith to the test and avoiding any sense of duplicity. The whole thing would have to be a miracle because I simply did not have five percent of the necessary funds.

I wrote to all of my creditors, advising them of my position and asking for time to pay. They all more or less agreed to my request, and over the next two years I managed to settle every account owing, though it did claim every penny of my three properties. There was nothing left over.


Hard Times Alistair Knox: Hard Times

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