Memoir

The suburbs, the ’60s

What use a scrap of bush?

IT’S 1961, AND the kids of the baby boom are rapidly outgrowing old nests. On the eastern edge of Melbourne’s suburbs, orchards and dirt roads are giving way to brick veneer and asphalt, with new houses going up fast on quarter-acre blocks bulldozed down to the bare smooth clay. At 6 Irving Court, Vermont, the window frames have just been put in: my mother, standing in what will be the marital bedroom, leans her hands against the sill and smiles out towards my father taking yet another photo with his Kodak Brownie. A big, eye-crinkling smile, with a hint of triumph. For the first time, my parents will be living in a house they actually own, and both have convinced themselves it’ll heal the rifts in their thirteen-year marriage.

I’m beside her, grinning like I’ve built the place myself. Six years old, with solid, summer-browned limbs and black hair home-cut in a lopsided fringe. Next year my brothers and I will be going to brand-new schools. I’ll learn to swim in the magnificent Nunawading Memorial Swimming Pool – Olympic size, fancy! In its first month, 80,000 people passed through the turnstiles. Oh, we’re all keen as mustard to move out of the cramped rental and into this: our new home.

My mother has no idea how much, over the next seven years, she will come to hate and despise this place, just as I have no idea how deeply and beneficially it will form me. Not the house as such, not the school or even the pool: what I will come to love most is an area no one has yet given a thought to, even in passing.

We called it simply ‘the bush’. It started just on the other side of our next-door neighbour’s place, an easy scramble over a paling fence, and went for miles. It wasn’t bush, really – or rather, what bush there was existed in patches between abandoned market gardens and old farms. There were dams, untended orchards, paddocks turning feral, stands of eucalypts and wattle, all dense with regrowth and weeds. Spreads of native heath broken by dark, menacing thickets of blackberries. It was about as unprepossessing as the Australian bush can be, but it was the closest my brothers and I had ever come to wild. What’s more, all those other places – schools, houses, swimming pools – were under adult rule. Adults didn’t care about the bush. The bush was ours.

Another of Dad’s snapshots, taken in my brothers’ room soon after we moved in but before our neighbours’ house went up: through the window you can see a scruffy former paddock dotted with gums and, dead centre, the single tall pine tree we called, unimaginatively but with a sense of reverence, Lone Pine.

Lone Pine was the first tree I ever climbed, and by a factor of many remains my tree-most-climbed. My brother Simon showed me how to scrabble and swing myself onto the lowest branch, and from there upward, limb by limb, higher and higher each time. Eventually I was able to reach a vantage point that even Simon and his friends, five years older and heavier than me, could not attain. Pressing myself close to Lone Pine’s thick, crusty skin, surrounded by its sharp resinous smell, I could peer through the needles and enjoy a bird’s-eye view of not only the bush but all the houses – our family’s, our neighbours’ – delightfully reduced in size. When a wind came up the high branches swayed, singing a creaky groaning song of something distant and unknown and thrilling. Like Ratty in Wind in the Willows as he listens to the wayfarer’s tales, I felt stirred by the romance of adventure.

For a younger child, and a girl, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to do something the big boys can’t. But one afternoon I found myself stuck up there, suddenly unable to find a reachable branch below. The unspoken rules that allowed me to hang out with Simon and his friends – never complain, always keep up – meant I couldn’t call out for help, but my brother, already on the ground, must have noticed. I didn’t know he’d climbed back till I heard his calm voice, not all that far below: ‘If you found the way up, you can find the way down.’ I followed his instructions, one gumbooted foot pawing the air till it touched the branch he promised was there, and hand by hand I made my way down to a safety that, once Simon was there, I hadn’t doubted.

 

NATURALLY, WE NEVER talked about our adventures to our parents. Nor did they ask. This was an era when parents had better things to do than hover over their children, monitoring their every move. Like every kid we knew, my brothers and I walked or rode our bikes to school, to the pool, to friends’ houses. We spent entire unsupervised days blackberrying, gathering daffodils from an abandoned flower farm, exploring fern-lined creeks and dams of unknown depth and, at the furthest reach of our territory, the old farmhouse on a distant hill. If a parent happened to ask where we’d been all day, we’d just shrug and mutter ‘down the bush’, and they were satisfied. ‘Down the bush’ meant that we’d been playing in the open air (a good thing) rather than hanging around the house bickering (bad) or getting into mischief on new building sites (worse). As long as we were home by dark and hadn’t broken any bones, there was nothing more they wanted to know.

We had as little interest in their world. All we knew was that fathers went off to work each day, and mothers stayed at home. The only women I encountered who worked outside the home were teachers, librarians or shop assistants. As for school principals, doctors, dentists, bus drivers, newsreaders on the telly, and of course the politicians and heads of business my father mostly scoffed at – all, without exception, were men.

Like most of the neighbourhood fathers, our dad spent some of his weekend establishing a garden, but this was more chore than pleasure. Other than that, his main outdoor interest was the racetrack. Our mother, on the other hand, didn’t really see the point in being outdoors at all. Mum had grown up in an inner suburb of Adelaide, the youngest daughter of a wealthy family who, during the Depression, lost their business, servants, jewellery – pretty much everything except their pretensions. As a girl, she won a scholarship to that all-important private college; as a young woman she’d studied ballet and acting, devoured books and cinema, and embarked on a journalistic career that led to her meeting my father, a clever lad from a working-class family, but ended in 1949 with her first pregnancy.

By 1961, with all three of her children now in school, she managed to get a toehold in theatre – her most-loved art form – when she auditioned successfully for a part in Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, being staged by an adventurous new company called the Emerald Hill Theatre. I have photos of her performing: she looks not only beautiful but focused, absorbed, like someone who is at last doing what they were meant to do. She adored being part of a group of real actors. But it was a long drive – no freeways then – to the theatre in South Melbourne, and it galled her that she couldn’t stay on after rehearsals to drink and chat with the rest of the cast and crew, not when she had three children at home and a husband who was not thrilled at her absence.

And then, unexpectedly, she was pregnant again, and all that was over. My mother never set foot on a stage again, though in one of fate’s little quirks that last baby, Michael, was a born performer and the only one of her four kids to inherit her acting talent. I think Michael’s early success on stage and television gave my mother more unambiguous joy than anything else in her life or ours.

 

STUCK AT HOME again, in the suburbs that she by now openly scorned as a cultural wasteland, reading became even more important for my mother. I shared her passion for books, but it was surprisingly hard to get enough of them. Once a fortnight Mum would drive the two of us to Box Hill Library, divided into two separate buildings: the children’s library, where she’d drop me off, and the adults’. There was no point in going more often: the regulations at the children’s library only allowed kids to withdraw books once a fortnight, and there was a limit, strictly enforced, of two books per child borrower.

Two books a fortnight. What was that about? It was a big library, not short of books. And reading wasn’t looked upon with the suspicion of, say, television watching. I think it stemmed from the prevailing attitude among adults of the time that you mustn’t give in to children: if you let them have what they wanted, they’d be ‘spoiled’. Even if what they wanted was simply to read more books.

Luckily for me, my two older brothers were not great readers, and more than happy for me to use their cards, so I was able to get my mitts on a life-saving six books a fortnight. Only three could be fiction, mind, the other three must be non-fiction. Perforce, I became a small mine of general knowledge: how ant colonies function, serious Marie Curie and her fatal discoveries, those rackety Tudors, you name it – until the eureka moment when I discovered that myths and fairy tales are classified as non-fiction. ‘So both your brothers like to read fairy tales, do they?’ sniped the nastier of the two librarians as she stamped each of my chosen books with a punishing thump. ‘Yes, they do,’ I answered solemnly.

Making my way then to the adults’ library, I’d wait for my mother to finish her own selection. I didn’t care how long she took: I loved that big, quiet room and its high shelves, and especially its grand circular seats of dark timber partitioned into quarters, each fitted with a triangle of leather cushion. The child of two devout atheists, I’d never been inside a church – but this, it seemed to me, was what it must be like. A church of books.

Of all the hundreds of books my mother brought home from that library, I remember clearly only one: Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (WW Norton, 1963). Mum was usually at her most relaxed when reading a book, but not this one. Her tension as she put it down, paced, then picked it up again signalled something dangerous and fascinating. At some stage, cautiously, I approached and started reading about ‘the problem that has no name’.

I don’t remember voicing the question, but I remember her reply: ‘It’s about me.’

My parents’ marriage was in a state of worsening disarray, the rapprochement enjoyed thanks to Michael’s ‘oops’ arrival having lasted just a couple of years. My father came home later and later, seldom in time to join us at the dinner table and sometimes not until the small hours. I’d try to stay awake, reading under the covers by torchlight, until he was safely home. By eavesdropping on their increasingly bitter arguments and snooping in my mother’s journal, I discovered that Dad was having an affair – or rather, another affair. And it was serious.

One night I heard my furious mother declare, ‘If you leave me, I’ll kill all the kids and then kill myself.’ Now that’s a statement to alarm even the most stoic ten-year-old, but I told no one, not even Simon, whose bedroom by that time was a converted shed in the back yard where he was engrossed in reading science fiction and teaching himself guitar. He seemed oblivious to the looming catastrophe within our family. That shook me too.

One evening Dad didn’t come home at all, and the next day my mother told us they were splitting up, which to us kids meant the splitting up, the shattering, of our known world. Observing the shock on both my older brothers’ faces, seeing their tears, I felt remote and alone.

But no one died, and soon my father was back. The affair, for whatever reason, had ended. Still, I don’t think I ever fully trusted either of my parents again.

The following year, my mother’s bitter determination to get out of the suburbs prevailed. Our house at 6 Irving Court was put on the market, then sold, and we moved to the inner city where Mum was certain she would find fulfillment and at last be happy. I shrugged off my oddly semi-rural childhood, stepping away from it as though from an outgrown garment, and began my teenage years as a city girl. It was 1968: as Melbourne finally started to wake from the somnolence of the postwar years there was, as Dylan sang of somewhere else, music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air. Circumstances and natural inclination had made me old for my years, and at a time of full employment I was perfectly able to leave home a few years later, at (almost) sixteen, to move into the first of many share houses and start work in the first of many jobs. Once the surge of social change brought in by the Whitlam government joined the gathering swell of second-wave feminism, the way was opened for me into an adulthood that previous generations of Australian women – my mother, for instance – could only have dreamt of.

 

NOT UNTIL FORTY years later, in some spasm of idle curiosity, did I look up my childhood address on a map. Just as I’d expected, roads and houses now covered most of what had been our bush – but lo, there was still a thin green line, several kilometres long and maybe two hundred metres wide, that had not been built on. ‘Proposed freeway extension’ it said, but when I called my brother Simon at his home in an adjoining suburb he told me the freeway – proposed a year or so after we’d left – hadn’t been built and wasn’t likely to be. He knew this well because part of the land, right by my old primary school, had become a community garden where he and his wife had an allotment. ‘Next time you’re in Melbourne,’ he suggested, ‘let’s go there. Take a walk.’

Six months after this conversation, I took him up on the idea. We began with a drive-by tour of familiar haunts and of Irving Court, where our old house still sported the front fence Dad had put up when I was ten. Simon parked his car by the community garden and, having admired his allotment, we walked together from there through the strip of freeway reserve – all that was left of ‘the bush’.

Every inch of it was parched and crackling in that last gasp of a wracking thirteen-year drought. We walked by open land, then a good-sized patch of trees, and a couple of threadbare paddocks where some disconsolate horses huddled in skimpy shade. No sign of the creek, which I assumed had dried up in the drought. Lone Pine, we saw, was no longer lone but surrounded by a thicket of scraggly offspring. I felt glad for it to have the company, because it seemed unlikely that kids still roamed free and climbed there.

Turning to cross the narrowest part of the reserve, we entered what had been our territory but was now well-established streets and houses. Soon my brother and I realised we were both experiencing the same eerie sensation: though walking on straight paths of concrete and asphalt, we could still feel the meanderings and undulations of the track that had been there. The earth’s familiar body was alive in the soles of our feet, the lie of the land still present in our bones.

‘This is where the first dam was,’ said Simon, gesturing. We paused, peering into a neat front garden that simultaneously, somehow, was also the ragged gum and wattle that had once grown there, and the beautiful stripey tree fungus that sprouted on silent fallen logs. Walking on, we topped the rise. ‘The old daffodil farm’s over there,’ I said, pointing. Looking back the way we’d come, both of us could see, like a double-exposed photograph, the vista as it had been. It was there, we understood, because we were.

 

I THOUGHT THAT was the end of it, yet that little remnant of the bush niggled at the edge of my consciousness. A few years later, in July 2012, I learnt in just a moment or two of googling that the remaining strip not only had a name – the Healesville Freeway Reservation – but that just a week or two earlier, VicRoads had finally, officially, determined that they no longer required the land, and were initiating a process of consultation to determine its future use. ‘Potentially conflicting objectives’ were mentioned. Indeed: the number-one objective of VicRoads, owner of 95 per cent of the land, was ‘providing an appropriate return on a state-owned asset’ – in other words, selling it off for ‘additional housing and public facilities’ – whereas the local council, City of Whitehorse, had already passed a motion declaring its preference that ‘all of the land in question be provided as open space for the community’.

VicRoads’ website was replete with structure plans and FAQs, flora and fauna surveys, communiqués and stakeholder objectives, with a timeline for the process through to the end of 2013. The Stakeholder Advisory Group (‘not a decision-making group’) had been appointed, representing a dozen organisations ranging from the Victorian Department of Planning and Community Development to the Whitehorse Owners of Family-Friendly Dogs Association (WOoFFDA). There was also a person from Bellbird Dell.

Bellbird Dell? I googled again, and learnt that just a few years after we left Vermont, the local council and volunteers began beavering away on part of what became the Freeway Reservation to create ‘a 1.4-kilometre linear park covering an area of 17.5 hectares, with some areas of remnant bush, wetlands and ornamental lakes. The park has two children’s playgrounds, many walking trails, and boardwalks over the wetlands sectors.’ Bellbird Dell, though located a bit beyond what had been our territory, sounded encouragingly like the bush I’d known. Well, we hadn’t had playgrounds as such, nor boardwalks – but still. Excited, I emailed them, and a committee member quickly responded with an invitation to visit.

This time I flew into a Melbourne transformed by two years of solid rain. A blissful view from the plane’s window of lush unbroken green, and there at the arrival gate my brother Simon waving at me. We zipped along interconnecting freeways to arrive in no time at the western end of the reservation on Springvale Road.

Waiting for us were Anne Makhijani from Bellbird Dell – a quick-moving, highly focused woman – and some of the other stakeholders: two fit-looking blokes of a certain age, both named David, from the Whitehorse Cyclists group who were keen on mapping out a potential bike path through the reservation; and Raeoni Turner, community director of Nadrasca, a not-for-profit disability service organisation that had built up a herb and seedling farm on a three-hectare plot leased from VicRoads.

The six of us set off into the warm spring day, yakking our way past WOoFFDA’s off-leash dog-walking area, past the back of the primary school and the reservation land its students use for playing sport, past the community garden with its neat allotments. Past a line of handsome eucalypts marching across the narrow belt of green – trees that had been excluded, Anne told us, from VicRoads’ flora survey. She feared an access road would soon replace them. Her vision for the future of the Freeway Reservation was that all its remnants of native vegetation be retained, augmented, and eventually connected, not sliced and diced into weedy chunks by roads and houses.

A little further on, Anne called us over to a low structure: a horizontal steel grate set into concrete, perhaps a metre high, a squat three-by-three-metre block built with the don’t-mess-with-me heft that would merit a maximum-security jail. We gathered around it, leant over, looked down. ‘Wow,’ said one of the Davids. I wasn’t sure what I was looking at: was that an enormous concrete pipe down there in the darkness? Or two, perhaps, angled to form an open-mouthed junction. And that darker stain – water? ‘What is it?’ I asked, but suddenly knew the answer: the creek. Our fern-lined, loamy-banked creek hadn’t dried up in the long rainless years: it had been buried alive.

‘During the drought,’ Anne said, ‘when we were struggling to keep the plants in Bellbird Dell alive, we could hear the water flowing, but we couldn’t…’ She sighed.

The creek, I later learned, was ‘barrelled’ in 1972 when, after heavy rains, the increased run-off from new housing subdivisions caused flooding on two main roads. These days, Melbourne Water is all for Water Sensitive Urban Design, since ‘promoting and protecting natural waterways as assets allows them to function more effectively and supports the ecosystems that rely on them’. But forty-odd years ago? Not so much.

I kept an eye out for Lone Pine as we walked on, and was excited to point it out amid its straggle of youngsters. ‘Woody weeds,’ said Anne dismissively, but when we spotted a black cockatoo high in its branches, which paused in its busy ravaging of pine cones to peer beadily down at us, she added only a little grudgingly, ‘but they can support native wildlife too.’

At the eastern boundary of what had been our territory, an area that back in the ’60s us kids had called ‘the cow paddocks’, we came to what is now Bellbird Dell. Here we strolled through a haven of shady tracks, and admired wildflowers – correa and dianella, chocolate lily and carefully nurtured patches of the once-abundant common heath – from a wide wooden boardwalk that followed the course of the now-vanished creek bed. Was it like the bush of my childhood? Not entirely. No blackberry thickets, for one thing. This was both more authentically indigenous, and at the same time more civilised. It struck me that it had all been created by volunteers: adults who’d not only wanted to come ‘down the bush’ but had actually nurtured it, and were now prepared to fight for it.

Finally we made our way to Nadrasca Farm, Raeoni Turner’s patch, where people with an intellectual or physical disability have been building up gardens and facilities, learning an array of new skills along the way. ‘In 2005,’ she told us as we walked past beds of young plants, ‘there was just one packing shed, and that was falling down.’ She led us into a kind of courtyard, and eight or so men and women immediately dropped what they were doing and hurried toward us. ‘Raeoni! Raeoni!’ they cried, hugging her. She introduced us, and one man, Peter, held my brother’s hand as he made a speech of welcome. ‘We can show you around; we can show you how everything works. We made it all,’ he told Simon, beaming. ‘Everything here, we made it!’

A few weeks after my tour of the Healesville Freeway Reservation, VicRoads posted a new document on their HFR Renewal Project website. Titled ‘The Way Forward’, it was unequivocal that their ‘overriding principle’ was achieving ‘a significant financial return from the sale of this state asset’ – though willing to make provision for continued community uses ‘where practical’, with open space to be incorporated ‘where feasible’. Housing would be ‘no more than medium density’, while not-for-profit organisations would be ‘offered some assistance’ to find an alternative location.

That’s it then, I thought, and heaved a silent sigh. That’s it for the last remnant of the bush that was once ours, for Peter and his mates at Nadrasca, for the bike trail, for Anne Makhajani’s dream of an expanded and growing Bellbird Dell. Market forces prevail, and why am I not surprised?

Oh, me of little faith.

In December 2014, before VicRoads’ turgid vision could be enacted, the state government changed hands. Daniel Andrews, the new Labor premier, had stood on a tree stump out the back of my old primary school during the election campaign and promised the residents of Vermont that ‘an Andrews Labor government will preserve the Healesville Freeway Reserve for the community – not sell it off for development’.

Three and a half years later, as I write, the whole convoluted contractual process of buying back the many individual titles is almost complete. The security of Nadrasca Farm (on a choice piece of real estate) was particularly difficult to ensure, but the incoming government declared its preservation ‘non-negotiable’. Parks Victoria has been assigned the job of building the bike trails, consolidating Bellbird Dell, and pretty much everything else the volunteers fought for.

 

IT’S FIFTY YEARS now since my family left Vermont, and twenty years since my mother’s death. The ’60s and the suburbs were not kind to that clever, complicated, pointlessly accomplished woman. But they were more than kind to her daughter. The leftover scrap of bush they offered was far more than my playground: it shaped me, it sheltered me.

Arne Naess, the pioneer of deep ecology, once wrote: ‘My relation to this place is part of myself; if this place is destroyed, something in me is destroyed.’ I would say that because that place is saved, something in me is saved too.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review