Mud, Glorious Mud

Author: Andew McKay
The Herald, Saturday December 6, 1975

mud glorious mud

MUD brick is not just a building material. It is a magic potion, a catalyst that does strange and exciting things to the minds of men.

Harken to Alistair Knox, doyen or Australia's mud brick builders, as he describes an incident during the building or a huge house at Eltham for the late composer Dorian Le Gallienne and Dick Downing. chairman of the ABC who died only the other day

He was making his daily inspection of the work in progress and "it was a cold misty morning and as I walked down the hill I could hear artist, John Howley shouting ecstatically from the bowels or a five-sided room.

"When I was able lo look down into it from the bank above, I found that he had stripped himself completely naked and was snatching handfuls or wet earth from the concrete slab floor and leaping at the walls to smear it on at the higher levels.

"His long black hair kept falling over his eyes and he would occasionally slap a handful of yellow clay on to it to keep it in place! His body was a bluish pink and steam was literally rising from it as he exulted in his first experience of earth building."

John Howley's fellow worker on that job was artist Clifton Pugh who very soon after decided to build "Dunmoochin'' his own mud-brick, wattle-and-daub and you-name-it dwelling at Cottles Bridge, near Hurstbridge.

Pugh stunned Alistair Knox by ringing him just three weeks after he started work to announce "I've built that house. Al ... I've got the phone connected. too." (This was in 1950 when it could take up to three years to get the phone on).

Knox asked him how he had managed It. "Well" said Pugh, "I was working on the house one day when a bloke came up and asked me if I wanted the phone on. I explained that I didn't. have anywhere to put it at that time.

"He said. "Never mind, we're trying to get 30 subscribers together to start a phone service at Arthurs Creek. I'll bring your handset tomorrow and we can put it in the fork of that tree and you can throw a bag over it."

"Dunmoochin" is not only still standing but has grown and almost, it seems, with a will of its own. Now it is the scene of intellectual-left Sunday afternoon soirees at which Pugh - the fashionable portraitist of Whitlam and Sir John Kerr - maintains his nonconformist image by wearing a scuffed sheepskin jacket and jeans.

At the time or building, recalls Alistair Knox in his just-published book "Living In The Environment", Pugh had a splendid athletic figure and took to wearing a strong man's leopard skin to show it off.

"He would stride through the bush carrying a longbow with a leopard skin quiver thrown over his shoulder to shoot rabbits. It was an interesting sight.

"Subsequently. he put his leopard skin away for two reasons. The first was that he couldn't hit any rabbits with the bow and arrow.

"And the second and final blow came when on one or his treks through the scrub he came upon two shooters armed with double-barrelled shot guns and the usual hunting paraphernalia. They caught sight or Cliff with his curly hair, beard, leopard skin clothing, sandals and bow and arrow. With a gasp of horror they turned simultaneously and ran off at high speed. They have never been seen again."

But, this is the rough-red and fireside chat or Knox's amusing, intriguing amiable, ardent and intelligent book. Very largely it, is political although not in a way that the currently much-abused word suggests.

Alistair Knox is a passionate and zestful character who escaped from the existence or a bank clerk to the life of an environmental builder and everything that that insinuated In the way of thumbing his nose at the done thing.

He is a lyricist when he describes Eltham, the place where, in 1946, he found a rumbustuous and bohemian refuge from the holy-quid treadmill and a shire council that would tolerate structures in the old-as-Egypt material of mud brick.

Just listen to this: "It, was a mysterious bushscape of little bounding hills often half obscured with mists In the mornings, and bathed in red-gold light in the afternoons.

"The moon that rose over them in the twilight in the east, and the evening star in the west, heralded the most beautiful nights that can happen anywhere In the world.

"By day the pale orange-pink gravel roads wind in and out of the mighty yellow-box trees. Their branches cast pale purple shadows on the roads that are speared with shafts of golden sunlight."

Knox believes that Australia is still an open society where every concerned man may get down to "his own thing" within the broad confines or the unchanging triangle of the land - water, hunger, survival, consciousness and the power of sunlight.

"Mud bricks arc the basic units throughout the world for all communities who live in a close relationship with nature," he says. "it is axiomatic that they will be a fundamental element in the alternative social structure today.

"The material Itself Is free. It costs a man his physical labor only, which is the same for both rich and poor. The making can be a wholly natural activity that has great therapeutic properties.

"Watching the earth dry and the varying characteristics of its physical structure, immerse us in poetic deliberations that unite our hearts, heads and hands. Feeling the basic material of creation gives us an appreciation of the Creator of it."

Not only mud brick but stone and timber - preferably resumed from old buildings, bridges, even telegraph poles - is the stuff of harmony with nature, according to Knox.

(Surprisingly he includes corrugated iron in his list of materials that wed naturally to the Australian landscape. "it has made the greatest structural impact on our horizontal land. Verandas cast purple shadows that welcome the stranger in.")

Now Alistair Knox's houses, or environmental caves as he prefers to think of them, grow from their surroundings not only In the hills outside Melbourne but in some or the most expensive suburbs.

He is uncomfortably aware that, success may spoil the ethos that has guided his adult life. hugging it in the awful embrace or acceptability and even trendy fashion.

But he feels that while people build with good heart and sensibilities open to their surroundings that nature will pervade ambition and gentle it into a proper place.

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