A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography, Chapter 37: La Ronde Restaurant

Chapter 37: La Ronde Restaurant

Author: Alistair Knox

Margot and I had more than one temporary domicile in Eltham, including an old cable tram on Gordon Ford's property, before we moved into the Fabbros' cottage set in their vegetable farm on about twenty hectares of land on the southwest of Eltham. The main house was a traditional Italian farmhouse occupied by Daddy and Mrs Fabbro and their two sons, Jack and Maurice. The family has been a great asset to our district for more than fifty years. Maurie, the younger son, is now the sole survivor - his mother dying only recently, aged well over ninety. Her loud, penetrating voice could be heard in the quiet of the 1950s as it echoed more than a mile up the hill on the other side of the creek when she called Jack or Maurice in for their meals. Mr Fabbro was a small, olive-skinned, friendly, hardworking man. Margot and I rented the original cottage they had occupied in the early 1930s, when they first settled in Eltham during the Depression.

The Fabro house The Fabro house

Margot and I were foundation members of the new Eltham society that had emerged since the war. Ours was a small, unique group without parallel in the history of Australia. The Peace had brought the potential for this new kind of society, and Eltham was the only community in Melbourne that had not opted for suburban progress. Its free and independent spirits were attracted to the Artists' Colony free lifestyle. We made every effort to keep living as simple and rural as it had been for a century. Eltham's valley location, formed by the oval perimetre of hills, made it a single entity that could be understood at one glance. There had once been three factories along Diamond Creek, which was originally an abundant mountain stream that meandered through its lowest level. Before the days of insecticides and increased human habitation, the creek's pure water originally had been used for brewing beer, then for grinding flour, and finally for tanning leather. As late as 1950, there were few locks on the houses because the majority of them were still under construction. Neighbours came and went at all times, in perfect freedom. It would have been possible to dine at a different home every day for a month, and then begin a repeat performance. The chief topic of conversation was the building of the mud-brick house, many of which had been partly completed for more than a year. The women were often celebrated and original cooks, and the major drink consumed was claret, which was beginning to replace the eternal swilling of beer.

Margot was nearly nineteen years younger than I was, but she had a very able mind, and the eye and feeling of a true artist. When I first met her, she shared a flat with Prue Boilleo In East St Kilda, Prue was one of those very funny people who specialised in embarrassing her friends with her loud remarks in lifts and on public transport. Together, Prue and Margot were a rather formidable pair when they were in full flight in a public place. Their penetrating comments were as merciless as Barry Humphries's wherever sanctimony or hypocrisy reared its ugly head. When Margot and I first set up house, she still worked for Ellis 'Rocky' Stones, the original Australian landscaper, who turned her into an excellent slate-paver. Her young figure and beautiful face could stop the traffic at any job she was working on. We used to make periodic trips to Barkers Creek near Bendigo, where we would buy the slate directly for prices which even in those days were hard to believe. It was beautiful dove-grey paving material, which became a matter of great regret as we saw the supply dwindle. Slate was probably one of the last benefits of the goldfields, and one of the greatest gifts to the cause of environmental planning. Its heyday must have occurred before the turn of the century, when large rectangular squares of slate and bluestone paved all Melbourne's footpaths and redgum and jarrah blocks all the roadways. It was the vitality of natural materials and their creative use that supplemented the design concepts which, together with our quality of colour and light, made the environmental movement so human and satisfying.

Margot and I were very happy at this time, especially because I had become the acknowledged leader of the movement. It was still in its infancy, but it was turning Eltham into a class of its own when it came to creative building. There was only one cloud in this otherwise brilliant sky. The use of natural material is always more difficult than that of its manufactured counterpart which, without exception, would always arrive on site without any variation. Due to the unpredictability that occurs in natural stone and timber from load to load, I found it virtually impossible to allow enough percentage for unforeseen costs that might arise. The end result was that although we had built beautifully and left a trail of satisfied clients behind us, there was practically nothing left over for ourselves after we had paid wages. We regarded each job as an individual work that had something of us in it, so I just had to work harder and longer, carrying the bookwork in my head. Once again, enthusiasm and determination allowed us to produce the best at an extra cost of ten percent-plus. We watched as our growing imitators copied our ideas, performed inferior work at lower cost, and charged equivalent prices, so that they succeeded while we struggled. But the way of the innovator has always been hard, and individual building work is an exacting lifestyle.

There were idyllic interludes, however, which made it all worthwhile. Two of our most creative clients were Dorian Le Gallienne and Richard Downing. The former was possibly our greatest musical composer, and the latter a professor of economic research. They were inseparable friends, with wit and conversation to match. I had built them a small weekend building in 1949, but they both went overseas for five years before it was finished. When they returned, Dick ordered an extension because he had decided to live full-time on their seven hectares in a remote unspoiled area of the Yarra River. The building was to consist of a five-sided mud-brick study which supported one side of a suspended-timber wing that looked out into the bush. The narrower end of the wing rested on a buttress formed by the hill high enough to give a cave-like access beneath to the courtyard that lay beyond the elevated section of the extension. The main team included Clifton Pugh, who was on his way to becoming one of our best painters, but who still required odd work at certain times to support himself. The whole operation was conducted with a spirit of great felicity. It was like no other project we ever undertook. Work would begin around 8 a.m., but the scene truly took off when Dick and Dorian appeared at nine o'clock to prepare breakfast. Clif Pugh's part was the mud-brick work. His athletic body, clad only in shorts and sandals, stuck a special note. The soil just happened to make the best-quality brick. As Clif slipped the bricks out of the mould in rows, they looked more like wet toffees than like building materials. Work was suspended once the great silver teapot and the porridge and toast appeared. We would sit around in the natural landscape, which came right up to the door, and watch the birdlife fearlessly picking up the workers' scraps and showing their appreciation with their native songs. The morning meal would continue for about an hour as our clients' conversations ranged over a wide variety of subjects with penetration and humour. I learnt more about landscape from Dorian at those breakfasts than I have ever learned from anyone else before or since.

Extensions to the Downing Le Gallienne house "Extensions to the Downing Le Gallienne house. Photo: Tony Knox

Once Clif had finished laying the five-sided wall, another promising painter asked whether he could help render the walls. The first I knew of his arrival was on a cool autumn morning as I came down from the road in anticipation of my second breakfast. I could hear excited shouts coming from within the study, which could be looked into from above. The reason for the shouting proved to be the naked, excited figure of the painter leaping about, scraping up handfuls of mud from the slab, and jumping up to slather it onto the higher reaches of the walls. His body was a combination of perspiration, pink flesh, and yellow mud. He had daubed his long black hair with handfuls of soft clay to prevent it from falling into his eyes as he performed his exertions. He epitomised what we all felt about the privilege of working on such a project in such an environment. In those days, the Eltham bush had been barely touched, and I was fascinated to see how Dorian replanted in such a way that it became was impossible to tell that man had interfered with the original scene at all.

My conversion had convinced me that God was the creator of it all. As the Psalmist sang:

'The heavens declare the glory of God;
The skies proclaim the work of His hands
Day after day they pour forth speech
Night after night they display knowledge
There is no speech or language
Where their voice is not heard
Their voice goeth out into all the earth
And their words to the end of the world'.

I could comprehend nature as an actual creation by an actual infinite being - not as some nebulous force called 'nature', which used to leave me suspended in doubt. Everything, both human and natural, became a cause and not an effect. Life took on a reality that gave me a purpose and a knowledge of who I was and where I was going. Every day involved new revelations and adventures. I remember discovering that cement was a combination of lime and clay burnt in long, rotating cylinders and realising in a new way that everything man built with derived from the ground. It made the natural materials I used take on a new significance. The long-grained Australian hardwoods were the exact result of the soil they grew in and of the shade, heat, rains, and growth surrounding them. The whole vast silent hinterland dissolved into an antediluvian desert wilderness where creation had remained immutable and unchanged from time immemorial.

Postwar Eltham was a contemporary society of urban people who elected to live in a nineteenth-century rural area on the meandering northeastern fringe of Greater Melbourne. It was a reaction against the suburban sprawl that was spreading like a leprosy over the densely wooded hills and valleys, which would have changed only gradually had it not been for the population expanding from one to two million in just a single decade. With its truly beautiful village atmosphere, filled with mists and organic nuances, the district for half a century had been a natural habitat for writers, painters, professors, and intellectuals who were prepared to defend its special qualities to the death.

The population explosion and the proliferating new technologies filled the longtime denizens with ill-concealed horror. The well-manicured house properties choking up the better-class suburbs were anathema, and they trampled the casual, slightly larrikin spirit true Australians identified with at that time. They were moved to hum 'Waltzing Matilda' when the national anthem struck at the pictures. Their defiance at the onrushing 'Convenience Society' and at the feeble remark 'You can't stop progress' accompanied their passion about retaining the unmade clay roads and the great unruly eucalypts, which caused confusion to suburban straight lines. This sentiment perplexed the honest State Electricity Commission workers trying to remove a leafy old landmark that stood in the way of rows of power poles. They failed to understand that their more-uniform lines were not preferable to the bush they would replace. Wilderness has always been a threat to the suburban mind, which seemed unable to appreciate the infinitely more mature order that lies behind nature's apparent disorder. Strange scenes arose when the tree-felling contractors were confronted by distressed residents who would surround the trees, attempting to protect them from removal. It was the unarmed intelligentsia facing the sharp axes of the inarticulate proletariat. Urgent phone calls, to summon a local councillor or the Shire engineer, were the recognised method of obtaining a stay of proceedings. An hour spent in the pungent autumn morning mist would dissipate the heat of the argument, and a truce would be declared. The workers would eventually be sent off to an un-treed venue; and the solicitors, businessmen, and schoolteachers would leave very late for the city or the classroom, while the housewives and the mud-brick workers returned to their mundane duties rather reluctantly, realising the diversion was over.

Margot became pregnant during 1953. The realisation that I would soon be the father of two families living in the same district was somewhat avant garde for those times, especially as I was a Christian and I also believed Margot was. This was before the sexual revolution, which would be in full swing ten years later. The prospect of the situation would prove less complicated than the actuality. Although I felt that Margot had every right to have children, a section of our community did not agree with this. It was to the credit of my recently found Christian friends, however, that they never in word, deed, or look gave any indication of disapproval.

La Ronde in a later guise as a Chinese restaurant La Ronde in a later guise as a Chinese restaurant

One day, a new client and his wife came to see me riding pillion on a motorcycle. Our early clients were often far from wealthy, but Mr Ribson Turner - an Englishman - and his beautiful Belgian wife appeared to have even less cash than any of the others. As I was an eternal optimist, I did nothing to dissuade them from their hopes of building a restaurant in Eltham. They returned a few days later with a contract to purchase three 16-metre-frontage blocks of land at the corner of the Main Road and Cecil Street, adjacent to our small local shopping area, for a total of £650 - which was a very good deal indeed. However, buying the land was one thing, and erecting a restaurant and dwelling-place, another - especially as Mrs Ribson Turner always seemed to be pregnant, and it was she who was to be the cook and the one to make the business function.

I had never been in more straitened circumstances. Vern Rich was my one remaining labourer, and the only timber I had for window walls was one-inch-thick kiln-dried hardwood. I conceived the idea of a basically round restaurant area with a small, hexagon-shaped kitchen on one side and an identical shop area on the other. The plan was based on a series of 1.8-metre-sided hexagons. The final shape was a large half-hexagon to dine in, flanked by the kitchen, the shop, an asymmetric living area, and a three-sided fireplace with two bedrooms to the rear that reduced to a bathroom and facilities. The overall floor plan, which looked like a bow kite, was a masterpiece of economic resolution that my clients gave all indications of being able to afford. It was built straight onto the ground on strip footings, and the internal walls were made from reinforced plaster about 65mm thick manufactured in the factory. Castley Bros., the inventors of this structural system, only made a few walls using this process, but I think the idea well worth resurrecting today despite all the 'space age' adaptions that have come and gone. The ceiling of the restaurant was 200mm x 55mm hardwood rafters fanning out from the centre. These were lined with 150mm x 25mm green hardwood planks that are still in perfect condition more than thirty years later.

Margot laying paving at La Ronde Margot laying paving at La Ronde

Margot decided she would slate-pave the restaurant despite the fact that she was six months pregnant, so she employed Betty - the wife of future film director Tim Burstall - to act as her labourer. Betty's athletic brown figure made short work of mixing the mortar and carrying the slate slabs. It was mid-summer, and the weather was very hot. Both girls dressed in brief sunbathing attire, especially Betty, who was in constant danger of falling out of her bikinis, which were still somewhat advanced garb even for the beaches in 1954. The building - which was set back about twelve metres from the street - and the floor levels of the restaurant formed an elevated platform that showed the two females off to full advantage. It is certain that no other place in the country could put on a better show, and it was a good example both of the Eltham community at work and of the new approach to working and earning a living.

The lower-middle-class vernacular that had been growing in Australia since Edwardian times received a major setback in the first half of the 1950s, especially in districts like Eltham, where avoiding the daily journey to the city had become something of an obsession. The trip took an hour each way by train, and although the time could be halved by car, the commute was considered both expensive and beyond the reach of the ordinary one-income family. It was the decade of the washing machine, with the automatic dishwasher still in the future. Men like Tim Burstall, who became an early underground film director, worked in the Antarctic Division; Tim strove to complete his mud-brick house so that he could feel secure enough to set out on his film career, which was a much more hazardous process at that time: no one had ever heard of a subsidy to produce a film.

The Ribson Turner Building was as successful as it was cheap, but the original owners did not remain in occupation for long. Perhaps it was one more pregnancy that tipped the scales; but the new owner, Jim MacKenzie, served scones and cream with a Scottish accent for years, and the building has always remained a restaurant known as La Ronde because of its shape. It became a Chinese restaurant two years ago, and the owner had the one-inch-thick window walls lacquered red and Margot's lovely slate floor painted green - the price of progress and the decline of discernment!

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