May 22, 2017

The Block

This is a piece called The Block that I submitted for this year’s Nature Conservancy Biennial Landscape Essay Writing Competition, replete with $5000 prize.  I was on the final five shortlist for this award in 2011.  Didn’t get shortlisted this year. So putting it up here.

We will move from the hills to the block soon. Or “our block” as we now call it.  Three hundred and nineteen square metres of compacted sand in the gentrifying suburb of Bassendean by the Perth Swan River from which our homage to modernism will rise.

Our block was hived off from a larger block, a thousand square metres of subsequently bulldozed fibro house with a traditional Aussie garden. The olive, lemon and peppermint trees all pushed over too, leaving a tangled heap of roots, mud, crushed jarrah, and skeletal lath and plaster. In its stead will rise steel, glass, corrugated iron and rendering.  Perhaps an ornamental tree in a structured courtyard to pay homage to its predecessors.

Yet, stubbornly, maddeningly, our desire to move to our block has been blocked. Our block, the middle of what is now three blocks, remains houseless and bare. Bare but for a doomed red gum where the driveway will be. Should be already. It is some eighteen months since we signed up for our block. Yet the tree still stands in quiet defiance, blocking our progress. One last spring flourish, maybe two, depending on the shire’s planning whims.  I am pencilled into the building plans with the words “owner to remove”, which, when the time comes, I will do with relish, a latter day Mrs Dance re-enacting my very own WA Foundation Day.  George Pitt Morison’s painting of that first event in 1829 shows Mrs Dance standing aside after the first axe blow to allow a muscular type dressed in white linen, sword on his belt, to finish the job.  I intend to complete the task myself, smoothly, unceremoniously, with perhaps a selfie for posterity.

Three into one does go, by the way. At least it does in Perth in this new century. Our city’s urban infill continues unabated. As the middle block we have doubled our risk. Our neighbouring blocks hold the promise, and threat, of neighbours. Near neighbours.  Far nearer than we have now.  Far nearer to noise, theirs and ours, tensions, theirs and ours.  Far nearer than seemed possible in that first house my parents bought down near Freo; a post-war asbestos-laden dream, destroyed a dozen years ago to make way for eight Mediterranean brick and tile efforts.

My twin brother and I, fresh-minted ten pound migrants released from the terraced gloom of Northern Irish streets, claimed every inch of that quarter acre garden. The almond tree where we scabbed the still green furry covers off unripe nuts; the two softwood flames that doubled as goal posts and threatened every errant shot with a puncture; the dead patches where the wooden wickets were pushed through the buffalo each November.

So much space back then. So few people. So many undreamt of suburbs to come with names like Kiara Waters and Ellenbrook. We were as west as we could go. Next stop Rottnest Island. Soon, young men and their families went further north and south, hugging the ocean all the while. Tarmac and concrete were poured over the sand dunes of the coastal plain, until that too filled up or became prohibitive for young families on one wage and Centrelink.


Finally, begrudgingly, the city spread east, before exhausting itself just past Midland, too enervated to clamber up the Darling Scarp in any meaningful way. Too much rock, too much wind, too much heat, too little proximity to the beach. No one lives in the hills unless they really want to. The flatlands were the future, and as the dreams of the post-War generations died or retired, modest bungalows were replaced with Tuscan palaces, second bathrooms, fifth bedrooms, triple garages, yet strangely, in a city of hot summers, single glazing. Blocks shrunk in size, houses burst their boundaries.  Laneways were closed and gaps filled in. The Fremantle Doctor’s healing fingers could no longer meander  and regulate the sick oppressive heat, which became trapped between concrete and tile. At the same time tall native trees, earth’s natural air-conditioners, became a thing of the past, pushed over and chipped at just the time they were most needed.

Yet the car and the far flung McMansion suburbs have not proven to be the dream that the freeway hoardings offered us. Smiling couples with smiling kids gaze down beatifically as we scowl our way through traffic. “Live the Dream”. “Community Starts Here”.  Dreams have become chimeras, shape-shifting into nightmarish freeway crawls to an increasingly packed CBD.  Community withers on the vine in metered dormitory suburbs: perfect sets for zombie movies filled with the house-proud undead. Perth, once so young and vibrant, has overreached itself and is now in bloated, chastened retreat. Poor infrastructure, wasteful travel times and climate change have all taken their toll on suburban largesse and sprawl. Urban infill is the new black as people fall in loves with cities again. Cities, or at least proximity to all they offer, are back on the agenda. House number 23 has become 23A and 23B.  Number 46 has become 46/1, 46/2, stopping at 46/4 if you are lucky. That’s the future.

Still, for us, and our two faceless, nameless neighbours, that subdivided, decimal-pointed future is frustratingly not arriving.  The council and the state’s land title agency, LandGate, have conspired to keep us from our blocks, or at least to keep us from building on them; to keep us from renaming them “the pad”,  “the building site”, or finally and fulfillingly “the new house”.   We have been reduced to making the trip down from the hills on bored Saturday afternoons, cruising past our block in a slow gun-less drive-by with nothing to aim at.  That other car driving slowly past at the same time could be one of our new neighbours.  We should stop and introduce ourselves.  Howdy nearly nearby neighbour.

Flush with excitement at our new block, we sold our old house immediately, before renting it back while we build, all at four times in rent what our mortgage was per month. We then began the long goodbyes to our neighbours, most of whom we have known for seventeen years.  At first it was wistful and nostalgic.  But now?  Eighteen months later it is embarrassing.  When are they actually going to go? I am sure that is what they are thinking as I mow the lawn, now someone else’s lawn, yet again. It’s like going to the airport to tearily farewell a loved one, then finding out their flight has been cancelled and you have to do it all again tomorrow.  And what happens tomorrow?  A curt peck on the cheek, a quick goodbye at the gate and you’re back at the ticket machine paying for parking with barely a sniffle. That’s what it feels like.

Our block remains a no-man’s-land, bombarded and flattened by mechanical forces that have crushed the will out of even the most noxious of weeds.  Sun, rain and wind have moonscaped it as it waits.  The council, for reasons unknown, has required the three blocks to be delineated with Colorbond fencing before it will approve “the next stage”. So there they stand: ghost houses on pale bleached sand, fenced off from the imagined intrusions of phantom neighbours.

I steam and moan.  I threaten to break in to LandGate. To do a WaterGate. To do a Tricky Dicky and sign off on the titles surreptitiously, confident no Woodward and Bernstein walk the aisles of the local Midland Gazette. I have traversed the length and breadth of our block, my own private Abraham measuring out the Promised Land, hoping against hope that barrenness gives way to birth. I have paid a deposit for the land, but like Abraham it is still hope against hope.  Ancient Sarai laughed when the angels foretold that this time next year she would be with child.  That we should be with house this time twelve months from now would seem no less a miracle.

Bassendean is the one-time home of the one-time quirky Rolf Harris. Like our block, the rest of Bassendean is becoming a suburb of blocks.  Bassendean is busy. Busy blocking Rolf out of the equation, covering over his traces and tracks with hipsters and coffee and bicycles. Bassendean is still the home of the local WAFL team, Swan Districts. The football pavilion, all yellow weatherboard and tin, pays homage to an era before national leagues; before money; before Brownlow WAGS with pneumatic breasts and plunging necklines; before drunken urinations in casino doorways and apologetic press conferences.

The once vital pavilion will soon go the way of scratchy woollen footy jumpers, the drop kick, screw-in studs, Brylcreemed stars in black and white team photos and their once vital young men.  A new stadium, compact, modern, smaller, more in keeping with the new reality of local football’s role as a nursery for the national league, will take its place. 

The council has offered to rebuild it. All it asks in return are the acres of lush, manicured empty grass surrounding the stadium, as well as a goodly portion of the sparsely populated spectators’ hills within it. These will be redeveloped into houses and shops and everything else that people do on Saturday afternoons now that the national league is televised and spans Thursday nights to Sunday.  It’s still called football in the way that Bassendean is still called Bassendean, but that’s about it. On Monday mornings footy stars once clocked back on in front of the lathe at the Midland workshops.  Now it’s all swim sessions, Heart Rate Monitors and shopping centre appearances.

And speaking of shopping centres, the one in Bassendean has been refurbished to fit with the suburb’s gentrification.  The old and worn out has been replaced by the freshly minted vintage. The deli section of Coles is tiled to resemble the kitchen of a stately Edwardian home. 

Even the local Dome Cafe has gotten in on the act, its crowning glory a refurbished railway carriage – a 1908 AR 348 as the looped video clip tells us – perched high atop the centre. We sit there like so many Harry Potters looking out through freshly lacquered wooden sash windows across to the Hogwarts escarpment, the Darling Ridge that separates Perth’s sandy coastal plain from the clay and gneiss-filled hills. The Darling Ridge where we still live as we await what will become of our block.

We have defined our block by what it will not be. It will not be eight hundred square metres but three hundred. It will not be occupied by an increasingly hard to maintain 1920s wooden worker’s cottage that we have poured our hearts and wallets in to. It will not be occupied by a dwelling with only one bathroom for four people including a teenager with straightening irons and attitude. It will not be covered with too much lawn or too little shade. It will not be cursed with too much proximity to the howling gully winds that shriek down the escarpment from late November to early March; winds that blast our roses and pump desert dust up through every gapped wooden floorboard, wafting our Persian rugs like flying carpets. It will not be kiln baked clay in summer and sodden mud in winter. It will not be built on the edge of the John Forrest National Park which burns more fiercely and more closely to our house every summer.

That is a lot of weight for even a well compacted block to bear.  We set about fortifying this definition with the backfill of half truths and emotional embellishments. The block begins to bear the weight of our dreams and aspirations; defining what we will no longer be as well. We will no longer be the edge-of-suburbanites doomed to drive to every shop, every social engagement, every school event.  We will no longer be the struggling mid-thirties parents too tired by kids, cut lunches and sleepless nights.  We will no longer be the couple whose jobs control us, but rather who control our jobs.  The hills just haven’t played ball with us lately.  The hills with all their dusty sound and fury, their blistering heat, their lack of sea-breeze, their stubborn refusal to conform, were determined not to let go of us without a fight; determined not to allow us to leave behind our past selves.

For we too are gentrifying. We have not aged and grown weary as others around us in our suburb have done. As the parents at the school have done. As the same woman working in the same deli has done. We have not grown older. We have merely matured. We moved here in our early thirties and now we are fifty.  We look around and we alone are gentrifying in surrounds that stubbornly refuse to do so alongside us.  That is our conceit at least. We have changed for the better.  No one else has changed.  We have moved on. No one else has. They have aged, lined, slumped, greyed, stagnated. Not so us.  We have merely gentrified. Now we must physically move on in order to maintain the illusion and better reflect our surrounds, or at least ensure they better reflect us.

This is patently not true. We too have grown old.  And much of our suburb has improved at the same time.  Yet the head justifies what the heart desires.  I fail to appreciate the new pavilion at Brown Park, the local oval which has been cricket in summer and footy in winter for fifty years. I have a grainy Department of Land aerial photograph of our street from the mid-sixties. Brown Park is there, distinct and egg-like, and two houses, ours and one other. Everything else is fields and orchards, divided by the snaking line of the Bridle Trail, the now abandoned railway track. Yet local history no longer fires my imagination.  We have a future to look forward to. Any acknowledgement of the past feels like a distraction.

And any building work in the present feels like an insult.  Why has their block been signed off and not ours? Why is progress progressing and we are not? So I sniff at the refurbished local petrol station. I fret at the way that vacant block in the industrial suburb has thrown up tilt-panelled small businesses so speedily.  I begin to despise even my own house that sold in a day with thirty five people clamouring to see it at its first home open.  “Character cottage” they called it.  And it is.  It is a classic work of art. Jarrah floors, jarrah walls, high ceilings, wrap-around verandah, view to the city.

I should love it.  I should stay faithful. But I have fallen for modernism’s beguiling charms. I now see all the faults, the cracks, the bulges, the structural cellulite. I start searching online for property porn. Pert houses on tight blocks. I fail to appreciate the generous fecundity of the garden I have tended, the delicious, heavy Corinthian hang of maturity.

I planted every tree on this property after razing the bitter and scrubby plants that had overtaken the neglected, fenceless yard when we first bought it. The now-twenty-metre tall native Frangipani; the towering shade of the Robinia mop-top that sends suckers up through the paving in my neighbour’s yard; the Illawarra Flame that stubbornly refuses to flame and is now just a metre from the power lines; the Cottonwoods that line the fences; the Liquid Ambar, the Chinese Tallow, the potted Ficus and the Flowering Pear whose boughs hangs lushly over the carport.  All of that my doing.

But my lust for the new fogs my eyes, making me despise the old and the faithful. I forget that I cannot take the fulsome shade I have created with me. Summer’s heat will have to be staved off in the new place with air-conditioning and shade cloth. I have shaped and sculpted this old block with an imagination that will not be afforded me on the new. I have memory here.  I have court-yarded and extended and planted and fenced and zoned. All that history, all that planning, all that layering will be gone, will be divorced from me, and I from it.

My wife and I lie in bed at times and talk of how, if we left each other, we could never build all that depth, that history, that wordless understanding with someone else, certainly not in the far shorter space of time we have left.  We shudder at the thought. But that is what will happen when we move to our block. It will be different. It will be love. But not a labour of love.  All the labour will have been done by others before we even move in. There will be little, if anything to do, other than re-configure the furniture from time to time. Window-dressing.  And it is we who will have to do the adjusting to our new prim mistress.  We must take our new house, our new location, as we find it, or, in the disappointment of discovering it does not meet our desires, its failure to scratch that itch resolutely enough, divorce and move on again. The fear is that after all the fretting and hoping and delaying, what we get won’t be enough.

The risk is real. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor speaks of the immanent frame, the secular life of late Western modernity in which even the idea of the transcendent is disdainfully ruled out.  And what is left to us? How do we respond to this unfettered freedom? With an almost maniacal desire to make the closed, godless universe fulfil us.  Taylor offers Peggy Lee’s lament “Is that all there is?” as the unuttered cry of a world in which the skies are actually the limit, and nothing lies beyond. 

I stand outside at night up here in the hills, unpolluted by the city lights, and, like Abraham, I look to the stars bumping together in the crowded sky and I just know there is something beyond, just know there is more to it.  And I just know that cities and streetlights and neon colour will bleach away that plausibility structure just as surely as they bleach away the stars that speak of it. Immanence beckons me like a whore. Perhaps there is still time to walk away from it all.

Months of nothing.  Then suddenly, everything at once. But with a snag. More than a snag; one last frustrating, unexpected, blockage. The red gum, whose demise I had plotted from day one, has won the day.  Just as the title has settled, a full twelve months later than we expected, the council has declared that that lonesome, insignificant tree cannot be removed.

We must flip the house design to accommodate the tree. We cannot be accommodated apart from the tree.  I Google street-view the tree, cyberstalking, trolling and bullying it online. I drive down and approach “the tree” as it has become known, from various angles.

I curse its double trunk, a two fingered Agincourt mockery flicked skywards towards me. I lament the Procrustean environmental officer and his well practiced patter. A voice destined to work in a planning department. Planning my downfall from before the beginning of time.

The block is the way forward.  “The tree” is the path of regression. I offer to replant, repot, replace. To no avail.  I remark that the tree is no Oak of Mamre, where Abraham pitched his tent, the trunk of which still stands to this day. No laugh, no spark of recognition, no “I feel your pain”. Eventually the council’s Kafka-esque tones bore me into submission.  The tree stays.  The house is to be flipped.    

I flip. I curse. I fret. Then I concede.  The first concession in what may become a long list by the time this house is built.  I comfort myself in the fact we can continue renting our old house, which, surprisingly – or perhaps not – has taken on a nostalgic tinge in recent months. I start to appreciate its age, its beauty, its sense of belonging in the landscape.  Even those trees that I had planted, everyone of them in just the right place offering the right amount of shade.  None on them planted in the driveway.

And then just as I am coming to terms with this, the mailbox delivers a sixty-day termination notice.  The owners want the house back.  Their house.  Not my house.  They want to live among the shade of their trees.  Sit out on their lush green lawn.  Prepare meals in their kitchen.  Immerse themselves in their clawfoot bath.

I am bereft. Like seeing a dumped ex-lover with a new man, something in our first attraction reignites, reminding me of that first breathless online meeting at  As I write we have ten days left and then we are gone from here. Forever.  Never to see the inside of the place again.  Never to make love in that bedroom again.  Never to laugh in that lounge room again.  Never to watch the distant Australia Day fireworks from that verandah again. Never again to put on my trainers, and run two hundred metres from the door to the national park’s gravel trail. 

We organise a limbo-land rental to accomodate our loss, a functional rebound. It will do until we complete our significant other.  We find a half-way house, a nearly new blank canvas, disarmingly treeless, equidistant from the old place and the block.  I sit in my studio writing for one last week, before planning a wake of sorts; one last Christmas with the extended family in our farmhouse kitchen. 

And as I stand on Christmas Eve, watching the news from Syria I wonder what it must truly be like to be homeless and houseless: to be blocked from even the faintest hope of progress. To look in anguish at a block where a house and loved ones once were but are now gone, rather than simply moan about where a house and family should be.  And in that moment I vow to be a less faceless neighbour in my new place; to progress beyond my own wants; to stand above my own frustrations; and perhaps even to plant a tree myself somewhere on what’s left over of that three hundred and nineteen square metres once the house has finished with it. To leave something behind of worth that may well block someone else’s idea of progress; to perhaps give them thought as they gaze at it, that they may, like I, consider what it truly means to flourish.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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