A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography, Chapter 42: Mount Pleasant Road

Chapter 42: Mount Pleasant Road

Author: Alistair Knox

Only a few weeks prior to the house sale, I had taken Margot on a trip around Eltham looking for suitable land on which we could build if and when the right time arrived. It was mostly a gesture on my part to keep up some sort of pretence about future plans when every circumstance was arguing against it. On our return home at the end of the long afternoon, I asked Margot which plot of land she had liked best. Her choice was precisely the piece I also liked best. I felt a strong disinclination to inquire about the land that same day; but two weeks later, a complete change occurred which quite firmly decided us to visit Eddie and to take Alistair, our six-month-old offspring, with us that afternoon. I said, 'We shall ask Eddie Anderson, who lives nearby, to tell us who owns the land we want'. We met Flo, Eddie's sister, on the back verandah of their wooden house. I did not know her, but she said, 'You're Alistair Knox, aren't you? Are you looking for Eddie? He's out in the orchard digging around the quince trees'. It was six years since I had seen him last, but he made it seem as though it were only yesterday. What I wanted to ask him was who owned the land that Margot and I liked nearby, but what I uttered was quite something else: 'Eddie', I said, 'I don't want to muck you around. Will you sell me some land?' Eddie was the largest landholding farmer in the district, and he had slept every night of his life on the property; I believed it would be easier to buy part of Buckingham Palace than to purchase some of his holding. Eddie always wore a wide smile. My ears doubted what they heard when he said, 'Yes, Alistair, I will'. His smile appeared, if possible, to grow even wider. 'Can you show us where it is?' I asked. Without another word, he led us about three hundred metres away from the quince paddock and stood us right on the land Margot and I both had chosen out of the whole Eltham Shire's one hundred sixteen square miles. By this time I had recovered my breath and managed to say that we did not have the money at that moment and that even when my finances improved, I would have to subdivide the land and could not help making money out of it. 'Alistair', Eddie replied, 'you can pay me when you like. I hope you make a lot of money out of the subdivision, and I want you here'. He then explained that he had asked the local estate agent to value it only a week earlier and had then engaged a surveyor to do the work two weeks later. He added that he thought the valuation of £800 an acre was a gift - but that was the price he wanted.

Eddie Anderson's orchardEddie Anderson's orchard. The heavily treed section between King St and Stringybark Rd is the section that Alistair bought. Google Earth

He often said over the years that it was a miracle the day I turned up. It was the first time he had considered selling despite the fact that the land had been in his family's possession for over a hundred years. It contained about twelve acres - or five hectares - in all. At that time it could be subdivided into four- or five-piece minimums. I was content to retain less than half because of my financial constraints, and to dispose of the balance. But one thing was certain. I would take no action to dispose of it; I would wait until the Lord sent the buyer of His choice. The future took on a completely different aspect. Half the land was in its primaeval state, with a watery gully running across its width. The creek bed had been fossicked for gold at odd times, and one small portion had once been an orchard. Apart from that, Captain - Eddie's retired draft horse - and the family cow were its only inhabitants. The two animals roamed nonchalantly throughout the partially cleared openings, which were knee-deep in greenhood orchids, egg-and-bacon plants, and all the other wildflowers that made that sequestred piece of bushland unique. In D. H. Lawrence's words, it was a 'morning of the world' experience - promiscuous creation, unchanged since the beginning of time. It was the catalyst of my environmental-building-design concepts. Now, unexpectedly, I was able to develop my idea into a place where design and nature would combine into one indivisible whole. It was an attempt to negate the personality-type architecture of the period by imbuing the whole with a sense of the Creator's presence.

Slowly-improving finances had allowed me to pay a deposit on Eddie's land, which in turn enabled me to lodge a house plan and to commence building. The modernisation of the Eltham Council proceeded very slowly in those unhurried times, and the members appeared very willing to let it go on in the same manner. The plan of subdivision for the land soon got lost in the archaic bureaucracy, and it ultimately took two years to finalise. The sale of the balance of the property, however, was completely the opposite. The day following my agreement with Eddie, I was approached by two separate 'buyers' for the balance of the holding. I never knew how they had gotten word of its availability. I told both of them that I would not move in the matter until I knew whether I was meant to sell, whether to either or both of them. Two days later my building partner Peter visited a chiropractor - who had a large practice in St Kilda - for manipulation of his dislocated neck. We had recently completed a considerable amount of design work for the chiropractic offices and for one of the partners' residence on St Kilda Road. Bernard Diskin - Peter's doctor and one of the partners - was a handsome man of Jewish extraction, from the Bronx in New York. He appeared to have the ability to attract wealth with little effort. 'I'm just lucky, Alistair', he would say. 'Everything I do seems to turn to money'. While he was adjusting Peter's neck, he asked him whether I had any land for sale. Peter replied with suitable Dutch obliquity that he thought I might have, and Bernie was calling me on the phone within the hour. He had a beautiful Polish wife named Aviva, with whom I had become acquainted when I lectured part-time at the RMIT, where she was studying interior design. Aviva appreciated my work and was anxious that she and her husband have some part in the action. I again warned Bernie that I did not know what was to happen to our land, but that he could have a look at it on those terms.

Diskin house: converted from stable and situated amongst the candlebark trees "Diskin house: converted from stable and situated amongst the candlebark trees

Bernie appeared the following afternoon, and we beat the bounds, crunching through the undergrowth like latter-day explorers. My price per acre increased by more than half because of the reduced area. I felt Bernie thought the price was fairly high, but he said, 'Let's go back to the house, Alistair, and I'll give you my answer over a cup of coffee'. He took one sip, and then produced some notes. 'Here's £50 to bind the contract', he said. I accepted the cash and said, 'If you wake up in the night and think you are mad, just phone me and I'll send back the money at once'. The money was never returned, although Bernie had to wait two long years to obtain legal title to his purchase. Waiting that length of time would normally have been completely alien to his character, but his mind became set on his purchase during the weekend. Unbeknownst to me Bernie, Aviva, and their three children happened to be picnicking on this land on the same day when one of the two potential purchasers had appeared, wishing to speak with me. The stranger, coming upon the family, had opened the conversation by saying that he supposed Bernie and Aviva were the other party interested in buying half of Alistair's land. The same man had been very cool in his appreciation the land when he had spoken of it to me; but when Bernie said to him, 'We have bought the lot', his face took on such an expression of horror that any qualms Bernie may have had about the two-year delay always vanished when he remembered that look.

It was early November when I excavated the site and finalised the plans for stage one of a construction project that was enormously large for the period. I had the excavator and a labourer make mud bricks on the excavation immediately with a series of grids that could continually be re-used. Lines of bricks covered the whole site in a matter of a few days, and I had one of my foremen commence making window frames from excellent second-hand oregon that a wrecker had urged me to buy at precisely my moment of need. The next week the end-of-year school exams concluded, and I was able to employ scholars who were also members of our youth fellowship. Ready cash held out because I had received payment for some of the plans. We set out the first quarter of the plan and started to build. Footings were poured, and the boys, who had no experience or knowledge, found themselves hard at work on the grand design. Later in the month, however, I saw the last of my ready cash disappear; and I knew that if I were honest about my resolve not to borrow, I should have to stop that night. I was again bewildered by the conflict between the propitious circumstance and the lack of financial means. I spent time that day studying which potential client I should approach about getting his plans finished quickly so that I could be provided with continued funds for the ongoing work; but whatever happened there could not help a loss of time which, I could not afford. Bram van Raalte, a young Dutch business executive, stood out as having the most advanced plan; but I felt he could be difficult, and it was only after some deliberation that I approached him. He was precise and clear. 'I'll call in at nine tonight', he said. When he arrived, we went over certain unresolved aspects of the plan and settled them. I concluded by telling him that I would complete the outstanding work as soon as possible, to which he replied, 'I want to pay you for the plans'. I re-iterated that they were not yet complete, but he again insisted on making payment in advance and took out his cheque book. 'Thanks, Bram, I need the money', I said in grateful disbelief. When the boys arrived the next morning, I had enough cash in hand to keep them employed for another month. The most remarkable aspect of God's economy was its timing, and how it always intervened just when human attempts had failed. I had sold the main house on our property a little earlier, and final settlement was due on the following 6 February, when the new owners would return by sea from Europe. Our new house would need to be habitable by that time, even though the plan of subdivision was not yet settled and our tenure was held merely by a relatively small deposit. It was amazing how material would turn up in miraculous ways day after day and throughout the whole exercise. Beautiful recycled material arrived at the precise moment, and practically everything cost less than half-price. After the Christmas break I sent some of our tradesmen to the job, and I also machined material myself. Without any panic, the work neared completion at the same rate at which 6 February approached. On the fifth of that month we connected the sewerage, the water supply from a quarter of a mile away, the electricity, the telephone, the drainage, and stormwater, in addition to the carpentry, plumbing, and painting. Margot and I arranged to move the next day, the sixth - the day the new owners would arrive from overseas. I went out to clean a few windows while Margot supervised the furniture removalists. God's timing was so exact that as Margot was moving out along one side of the drive, the new owners were driving up the other. The manner in which every detail had fitted in without fail was beyond mere coincidence; such things were happening nearly every day. The final evidence of this was the fact that my partner bought the remainder of our old land, enabling me to meet all costs without borrowing to build and to pay off all other debts owing - all at the same time. In addition, our old land had many fifty-year-old trees, and when we arbitrarily decided where we should draw the boundary line, it happened that it went through that veritable forest without touching even one tree.

Knox house interiorKnox house interior - main room showing clerestory lighting

In the midst of all of this activity, something in my mind said, 'What a fool you have been to build on land over which you have only nominal ownership'. My first reaction was to agree; but another voice said, 'Didn't you ask for Scriptural authority as to whether or not you were to build?' I answered 'Yes'. 'What answer did you get?' Again, the answer was 'Yes'. 'Then what are you worried about?' Immediately, my assurance returned. The new title came through two months after this, and Bernie immediately settled his purchase; the whole project was resolved for all time. I realised that I might have to pay tax on the profit I had made, so I asked the accountant to write to the taxation office and explain the situation. They merely sent back a substantial bill from which they had deducted a tax rebate that I had been looking forward to receiving. Then the accountant said, 'Why don't you write to them?' - which I did. I told them exactly why I had done what I did. About two months later I received their reply, which included my no-longer-hoped-for rebate cheque and a note telling me there was nothing remaining to be paid. As I reviewed the situation, I realised I had been living by faith rather than by sight for the past two years - a privilege open to every practising believer.

The first stage of our house included one bedroom, a bathroom/dressing-room area, a family kitchen, and a 12m x 4m outdoor-room wing. Both of these wings, which were eventually to open into the great central living area, were sealed from the outside with temporary panels. We also poured the footings and stood up the window frames for the remainder of the building. I went through my accounts and discovered that I had overspent, so I stopped employing people on the building forthwith. As the bricks had already been made, I decided I should lay some myself. I would begin each day by setting in about sixty blocks, and then I would start drawing. This became very difficult for two reasons. The first was that I became so tired I could hardly push the pencil over the paper; and the second was that I had recently acquired an asthmatic condition from the financial tensions of the previous year. The following Saturday afternoon when the family had gone out and left me alone to continue the bricklaying, I felt so desperate, stiff, and tired that I did not know how to start. As I gazed forlornly through the kitchen window, I could just make out an ageing blue Volkswagen battling through the trees and winding up towards me from the main road. A shortish man emerged and came to the door. I did not know him, but had a sixth sense I had seen him somewhere before. He answered my greeting by saying, 'Can I work for you?' in a Yorkshire accent. His fresh complexion, alert attitude, and respectful approach evidenced a strange mixture of capacity and English working-class subservience. When he told me where he had worked I just said, 'When can you start?' That was my first introduction to Eric Hirst, the most competent and all-round tradesman I have ever encountered. Eric had been driving a bus for Bruce Nixon, whose family owned a big bus company, and I had seen the paving he had done on Bruce's house - which I had designed - on the banks of the Yarra at Kangaroo Ground. Eric was earning £20 a week for Bruce, so I offered him £23. When we met at 8 a.m. on the first day and he asked, 'Where do I start?' I indicated a footing on the far side of the building and asked him to build a fireplace similar to the one already built. Eric proceeded with skill and speed without complaint or query, although it was the first he had ever built. He called Margot 'Mrs Knox' and was very deferential for a few days, but he soon blossomed under our casual attitude and the high commendation his work merited. Within a week, it was down to cries of 'Margot! When's the tea coming?!' Eric had served an apprenticeship in Yorkshire restoring old houses, and his skills dovetailed with my design concepts perfectly. My earnings from planning provided enough for his weekly pay, and the recycled materials we needed to continue the work kept coming without any letup. I was able to supervise the work, which had no equivalent at that time. Our employees were fashioned into the work, and with every day came a sense of adventure as we figured out how to go about doing it.

It was not the case that we were delivered from all difficulties. In fact they tended to increase, but we found we were given strength to come through them.

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