A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography, Chapter 34: Giving up the bank

Chapter 34: Giving up the bank

Author: Alistair Knox

My great chance to escape the tedium of the bank occurred as I neared my twenty-years-long service leave. This concession was still restricted to only a few firms and institutions. A good steady job, a house, a wife, and children were what it was all about. For these rewards a man retained one position for his working life, hoping to retire with superannuation benefits at sixty-five. The alternative - receiving a government pension - was regarded by many people as little more than charity, and they made every effort to conceal that they received it. Keeping up with the neighbours was not so important in Eltham because its inhabitants could see the enticing possibilities of working in the natural environment among a small group of adventurous spirits, undertaking jobs that defied the general trend of being confined to offices or worse.

The Pyke house Templestowe The Pyke house Templestowe. Photo: Kate Gollins

My work was now receiving considerable publicity in the press because earth-construction was beyond the imagination of most people, and any other form of building was almost impossible amid the shortages of the time. One day in 1948 I was approached by an executive of the Art Gallery of Victoria on behalf of four ladies who proposed to build three houses on a twenty-acre peach and apple orchard in Templestowe - a joint house for Polly and Guelda Pyke, and separate ones for Val and Yvonne Cohen. They were all unmarried at this stage, although Val was anticipating marriage in the near future and her mother proposed to live with Val's sister Yvonne in the second house. As the Pykes' was a joint building, the two women decided to occupy separate sections of the building, especially as Guelda required a private area for her work as a practising artist. They had independent means, and this gave me my first opportunity to produce three sizeable houses amid the pink and white plum blossoms that covered the northern slope and looked over the river towards Eltham. It was an idyllic scene, particularly as these would be almost the first houses that could be seen from that direction. This was before any orchards had been subdivided, and the unbroken pattern of fruit trees separated by lines of ancient pines had remained unaltered since the land was first settled by a largely German community a hundred years earlier.

I applied to the bank for the six-months-long service leave immediately as it became due to me. It was granted without delay, and I left those incarcerating quarters with great joy. This felicitous occasion occurred just after the completion of the Busst House. I vividly remember hurrying from the Eltham Station to the building expecting to find Wynn Roberts (my former carpenter foreman), and Peter Glass, who was assisting him in constructing two settles to fit into the large alcove fireplace. The general cleanup up had been completed the day before, and when I went inside I found that the carpenters had also left. It was en eerie feeling - finding myself alone in the most advanced mud-brick building I knew of, meditating on the communal effort that had produced it. Horrie had fractured a thumb in a fall from his bicycle during one of his visits to the Downing-Le Gallienne building - which was also under construction two miles to the east on a fifteen-acre site bordering the Yarra - and I had kept him on in a supervisory capacity until he could return to full duties.

Busst house 71 Silver St, Eltham. VIC 3095. Alistair Knox's first major mud brick building, designed and built 1948 Busst house 71 Silver St, Eltham. VIC 3095. Alistair Knox's first major mud brick building, designed and built 1948. Photo: Tony Knox

As I paused to look at the 12"x 12" tiles Sonia had both made and laid with great personal effort, I found myself being asked from within my mind what it all meant to me. I found I had to say it meant absolutely nothing. The gradual increase of planning and building was absorbing while it continued, but as soon as the project was complete it became just another yesterday. It was truly surprising to find that the life I had set my heart on meant nothing to me as it began to fructify. At the same time, I was convicted by a text which kept repeating itself in my mind: 'Where much has been given, much will be required'. I realised no one had had better parents than I had, and I was becoming painfully aware that I had given nothing in return to my children and that I would eventually have to answer for the dereliction of my responsibilities. The sense of uneasiness continued as I walked back towards the station in the twilight. The atmosphere was still, with only an occasional car passing along the main road. The village was closing in for the night, and I seemed to be the only lonely person on it.

The new jobs drove out the melancholy next day. There was a simple plan of subdivision to finalise at Templestowe, and the Le Gallienne weekender to complete at Eltham. The struggle for materials remained as complicated as ever, but I now had a light truck which prevented the lack of a bridge across the Yarra between Templestowe and Eltham from making the Pyke-Cohen project impossible. Horrie had been given control of the market truck belonging to the orchard so that he could get to work and obtain materials as well. I had terminated my first financial associations with my old shipmates, by mutual consent. The selling price of the remainder of our Heidelberg land had increased sufficiently to pay for all our building losses - including that of Freddie Watton's house at Brighton which, like all the others, was produced for cost price, like all the others. The Pykes and the Cohens, knowing my financial position, kept me in weekly fund; but I was always under a strain, especially as it took so long to make any worthwhile impression on the buildings. I had opted for timber construction on concrete slabs because there was a slight improvement in the supply position and because I thought earth-building would prove too great a strain on my elegant artistic lady clients, no matter how they thought about it before it all began. The Doncaster Shire was at that time housed in a brick store building on Council Street. When I arrived there with my plans, I found the internal space was nearly completely occupied by cases of documents and files. No one appeared to inquire what I wanted. It was only by dint of my shouting out that voices could be discerned issuing from an office partitioned off from the main storage area of the building. I found the Shire engineer sitting alone in his cubicle; after I had stated my business and left the plans, he told me his name was Rocksteen and that the only other person the Shire employed was a Mr Opie, the health inspector, whom I knew because he had recently been in the employ of the Eltham Shire.

My application must have been almost the first that was to start changing the district from a rural backwater into the most expensive residential area in the most residential city in the world. The German settlers had methodically surrounded every orchard with rows of pine trees and built their Lutheran Church in Church Street to keep 'the even tenor of their ways' for nearly a century without even a jot or tittle out of place - only to watch cataclysmic development, including multi-storey Shoppingtowns, dominating the three or four shops and the stone schoolhouse in the Doncaster village. I recollect one day, after we had started work, finding myself without transport and catching the train to Heidelberg, trying to hitchhike to Templestowe, and then walking the whole five miles without being passed by a single car. The increased labour force exacerbated the difficulty of Horrie's inability to trust anyone with proper work, so he had his two initial labourers - Lucky Cash and Vern Rich, by name - stack timber and keep up the appearance of usefulness while he himself set off like a madman trying to do three days' work in one.

I met Margot Edwards during 1948 in Matcham Skipper's Studio behind the Russell Street police station, and it was only a short time afterwards that I became her lover and a constant visitor to her in a loft in Ivanhoe. Margot was only eighteen years old and one of the most beautiful girls I had ever seen. She had done an art course at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and showed outstanding ability as an impressionist painter. I felt concern for my three children, who were now living with Mernda and her mother in a large, rambling, old timber house on three acres of highland that looked into the Eltham valley, which had not yet surrendered any of its rural village quality. But my senses were dulled because I had been in a sexual relationship with Sonia Skipper for two years prior to this event, and they knew all about my infidelity - which had been reciprocated by Mernda. The family was held together by Nina Clayton, Mernda's mother - a true surrogate mother who allowed the actual parents time to get on with their separate lives.

Eltham was further advanced in matrimonial deviations than was the rest of Melbourne; in the same way, it led in most other branches of twentieth-century social behaviour. Middle-class stigmas did not stick among its artistic community, which had always accepted personal freedom and personal licence as synonymous - a condition which was not to become the general standard elsewhere for at least another decade.

I lived right in the centre of the new morality, where in most ways we developed a much more honest approach to the actual condition of our postwar decline than did those living the 'respectable' eastern suburbs, who kept closing ranks to defend what they no longer believed in. Much of the universal lower-middle-class suburban society was beginning to break up into semi-autonomous divisions in the inner areas, while it expanded in an unwieldy ugliness on the outer perimetres. There was no attempt at an overall-plan proposal for the metropolis until 1954. The population just kept pushing further out, often without thought of adequate services or transport, in order to savour a freedom they had never before experienced. But the price of unplanned space, no matter how desirable in itself, would soon begin to present unanticipated difficulties as the population virtually doubled itself in the ensuing ten years. Carlton and Fitzroy and the other inner areas became the preserve of the Italian and Greek communities. The middle suburbs remained static, and on the outer fringe Eltham's artistic community was the only one that resisted development. It succeeded in this aim for at least twenty years because its social attitude was assisted by its hills-and-valleys terrain - which was more expensive to develop, and less desirable to the middle-class syndrome to inhabit, than any other part of the metropolis.

Left to Right: Matchan Skipper, Myra Skipper, Joy Hester, Yvonne Lennie, Arthur Boyd, David Boyd Arthur Boyd's studio 1945. Left to Right: Matchan Skipper, Myra Skipper, Joy Hester, Yvonne Lennie, Arthur Boyd, David Boyd. Photo: Albert Tucker

I came more and more into conflict with my conscience as this climate developed. On the one hand, I became aware that we were losing the traditional Christian ethos and values I had been born into and enjoyed as a child. It was only as I discovered the old values would not continue unless my generation maintained them. It repeated endlessly the text I did not want to hear: 'Where there is much given, much will be required'. I was struggling with this conflict of interests in 1949 as I considered how my outlook had changed. I knew if I wanted to maintain the old values, I would have to give up my drinking mates and get back to church. At that time, these two activities were the lowest priorities I could think of. They cut right across my daily routine. There always seemed to be some social activity with the artist fraternity, which was in the full flower of its youth. Arthur Boyd and John Perceval were now full-time painters; Tom Purvis of Australian Galleries was pushing up prices every month; and the days when Arthur was prepared to live on £5 a week and John Perceval sweated when he signed a cheque for £2 quickly faded into the past. My reputation for design and building was rising every day, especially because I was able to bring my plans to structural completion, which was not common prior to 1950. There was an unending succession of parties and gatherings of the new society; they developed my taste for claret to a level that would leave me feeling heavy the following morning. I could feel alcohol beginning to affect my efficiency. I was in the midst of the most significant art group to have emerged since the Australian Impressionist movement of the 1890s. There was an unbounded vision before us, and when we were together it was difficult to imagine a more carefree and creative time. It was when I was alone that I became aware of an inward realisation that satisfaction was more than pleasure, and that even the golden age we were enjoying was quickly passing us by every day. The fact that the artists were both winning recognition and making rapid financial progress began to separate them, little by little; and the original excitement of being in the centre of a new society gradually became commonplace. One day, as I was considering the quest for fulfillment that my design and building success were failing to provide, I remembered a young man I'd heard giving his testimony at some missionary meeting a few years earlier. He said, in effect, that two years before, he had had to decide between Christ and a career. He said, 'After a struggle, I chose Christ and thought I was losing everything. A year later, however, I found I was losing less than I thought and gaining things I never anticipated. After two years, I couldn't remember what I had lost because of what I had gained'. It then occurred to me that I had done exactly the opposite. I had chosen a career instead of Christ and as I gained it, it meant nothing to me.

When I was driving to the city from Eltham one autumn morning in my first Volkswagen car in 1949 and cogitating over the ephemeral factors hindering my life, I heard a totally comprehensive voice speak to me from the passenger seat of the car. It said, 'The things you have been thinking about for a long time - can you do anything about them yesterday?' I glanced across, thinking for an instant that I would see a visible being, but of course there was none. 'No', I said aloud. 'Yesterday has passed'. This occurred at the very instant when I was passing over the Diamond Creek, in the very centre of the rural valley. I sped on up the mile-high hill leading to the rim of the amphitheatre that creates the Eltham Valley, thinking deeply about which way I should turn. At the very top of the Lower Plenty hill, immediately adjacent to the Frank English house, the voice spoke again. 'Can you do anything about it tomorrow?' 'No', I said without hesitation. 'Tomorrow never comes'. I sped down the other side of the hill in my new, emancipating VW, passing a solitary vehicle at breakneck speed. I realised that this remark emanated from a story from my Sunday school days; it told of the boy who always kept putting off the decision to repent and believe until tomorrow until he finally died of old age. Passing the two or three shops that then formed the Lower Plenty Shopping Centre, I heard the voice speak for the third time, saying, 'If you are going to do anything, you have to do it today, don't you?' 'Yes', I replied at once as I sped over the Plenty River. But I didn't do it. I knew that for me to have a change of mind towards God, I would have to give up my drinking mates and go back to church. My drinking mates were the most exciting and friendly men one would ever meet, especially at that moment when they were at the very beginning of their remarkable careers. To compare this social and intellectual high-point with my current view of the Church was beyond all understanding. I saw it as a collection of people who had grown old and out of date, uttering platitudes to each other, with the women wearing funny hats and the men in high starched collars. The old Temperance Hall days of my childhood had recently ceased altogether because none of the founding families remained in the district; this made my dilemma even worse. Most other churches I had knowledge of had become a mere parody of a proper church. The car sped on its uninhibited way through Heidelberg and Ivanhoe - past where my father's family had lived seventy years earlier - at an ever-increasing speed which the then half-deserted roads permitted. I remained immobile, except for lightly touching the wheel to stay on the carriageway and pressing more firmly on the accelerator with my foot, as I considered what I should answer; but no answer came. It was not until I approached the Merri Creek, which was then the southern boundary of the City of Heidelberg, that I raised my eyes a little and saw the recently completed Clifton Hill railway overpass coming into view dead-ahead. On the right was the newly formed Collingwood athletic oval, set in the elbow of the Merri Creek reserve where it forms the limits of the great lava flows that were so instrumental in defining the geological history of the city and its environs. I don't know how it happened, but I heard myself saying, 'I am going to pay the price and put Jesus Christ first in my life'. It was a moment of chilling reality: no joy, no well-being - just a blunt sense of stolid reality. I had no more time for directed thinking as the city traffic thickened and I had to keep my mind on my driving. In those elating days, every VW owner felt he was a prince of the road: the heavier the traffic, the more he was compelled to swing through it at no little danger to life and limb. The full impact of my decision hit me the following afternoon when I realised it would be necessary for me to implement it. Images of church members appeared before my eyes. I saw them vividly as being the most lack-lustre and uncreative community it was possible to conceive of. The women's great Queen Mary hats nodded at me from the background of my mind, and in the foreground were a row of shiny-clean, ugly male faces uttering foreboding inanities. This depressing scene became even more impossible as I held it up against the image of my erstwhile exhilarating and creative artistic companions. I had no idea where to turn or what to do. Suddenly I found myself, standing in the middle of a hall in some non-residential building, having to choose to go out a door either to the left or the right to implement a decision I had to make.

At that precise moment, the voice that had spoken to me three times three days earlier spoke to me again. I almost fell over in surprise. It said, 'Did you mean what you said the other day?' 'Yes', I answered, a little uncertainly. 'Then go to the left', the voice continued, and I was aware that both of the choices confronting me were legitimate, but only the one on the left could be the right choice. The other was really a prevarication. As I started towards the doorway, I became aware of an invisible presence within a few inches of my face; it said, 'I've been waiting for you for twenty years'. I believe that moment was the beginning of my personal relationship with Jesus Christ which has, despite all my backsliding and times of failure, continued ever since. It was a situation that could not arise until I was prepared to let Him deal with me, instead of me telling Him what I would do for Him. I had little difficulty knowing what that meant, once I had decided that in fact I meant what I had said. My first activity was to find a church I could attend, and to take my three children with me. I consulted Isobel, my elder sister, who lived within a mile of our Eltham home. She told me that she attended the nearby Montmorency Home Mission Station where, so far as she was concerned, she heard the spiritual truth. I decided to try out this informal group partly because I felt it would be the least difficult place to go. I found in myself a real reticence to cross any spiritual-building threshold. It took me three weeks to overcome the barriers that raised themselves against such a determination. Finally, I found myself and my children Tony, Gay, and Janie racing up the Lower Plenty Hill and headed for the Montmorency Presbyterian Mission Station. We arrived fifteen minutes late, but as we burst into the humble hall we found the service had not yet started. I dove for a seat on an old wooden form and tried to be invisible. It was painfully informal, except for a middle-aged man wearing a clerical dog-collar who sprang onto the dais, entered the rostrum, and announced that there would be a meeting at the conclusion of the service to consider ways and means of building a permanent church building, which they had so far been unable to do. 'We would therefore like as many as possible to stay behind to attend it', he concluded.

Montmorency Presbyterian Church Montmorency Presbyterian Church. Photo: Tony Knox

I was soon to discover that the first words I had heard when I got back to church were signs of a job for me. The church needed me as much as I needed them. Each of us stayed behind because everyone else did, and as I heard the problem, the answer materialised in my mind. A dark, tall, articulate man described how they had so far been inhibited by a lack of material and funds; because of my building experiences, I could see an answer to their problem. My daughter Gay nudged me and said, 'Say something, Dad: this is your stuff'. I found myself on my feet before I knew what had happened, trying to stammer out that I thought I might be able to assist them with their problems. But what came out of my mouth by way of introduction were the startling and unintended words 'I have been meaning to come back to church for a long time, and now that I am back I mean to stay back'. I then told them how I thought they should proceed. I noticed the dark, tall, articulate man smile slightly. He turned out to be Bruce Fraser, an engineer in the Civil Aviation Department, who was also an elder of that congregation.

We all attended the following Sunday when, by apparent chance, there was an annual election for the Board of Management, to whom the Presbyterian Church entrusts the responsibility for its property and tangible assets. There were few eligible candidates and I found myself duly elected, which was an enormous help in the months that would follow. The other fact that struck me during those first few weeks was that there was only one really second-rate person in the congregation - myself. Everyone else seemed to be active, hopeful, and friendly - like members of a large family. The group was large enough to be effective, yet small enough to be personal. By the time the great day arrived for the building's dedication, I had worked with most of the church members landscaping, painting, and cleaning up enthusiastically; but the more I tried to give, the more I would receive. The pastor was the Reverend Mr R. V. Merritt, a most exceptional man, who nurtured the congregation as a pastoral contribution to his primary work, that of vice-principal of the Melbourne Bible Institute - where his influence still continues into the 1980s, many years after his death. I would listen to him unfolding the way of the new life week by week from the Scriptures. It was like a continuous, ongoing story that always left me in tears of wonder, love, and awe. He himself had only come to a personal knowledge of Christ as he made his way home from the First World War. No one had ever told him what the gospel message was all about. The experience of Bruce Fraser was not dissimilar. He had arrived there as an elder from his church in the west without knowing Christ personally.

I arrived for the dedication service almost unable to control myself. I was so full of joy and tears that I was unable to talk in case I should start to cry. Several people said, 'This must be a great day for you, Alistair', and I could only nod and turn away. I never enjoyed a more satisfying occasion. It was the complete opposite of the experience I'd had upon completing the Busst Building, which I had to admit meant nothing to me at the very moment when it was elevating my reputation as one of the outstanding architect builders of the time. It was only after I chose Christ that I discovered the career I thought I should lose became real.

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