Among the very first impressions of London that I had was the abundance of brick and black painted downpipes and externally-run wiring. London is overwhelmingly brick; grimy and wobbly – like it has been smudged or partly erased and then done again over the top. I like the way that some of the corners sag and wobble, and the ends of terraces are held in place by cast iron restraints. There is magic in a brick course that bends under the weight of age – poorly constructed on less than perfect brick foundations – only just discernible but once you’ve spotted it, the whole construction seems to vibrate. Pipes and cables sprout out through the walls like ivy trying to get in. All these things, the common, ordinary imperfections can tell the story of the endurance of place without ever simplifying or sentimentalising it. It’s enjoyable to take a long look at the backs of terraces (always the more interesting of the sides) and follow the protrusions, sags, lesions, deformations, and wear of the brick. London’s streets are like big old shaggy dogs.
Having lived here a number of years the brick is no longer so strange. And only recently I remembered a time when the house I grew up in – which never consciously seemed strange (or at least, made of strange things) was (and not to sound too mystical) revealed as a jumble of rather unremarkable parts organized by a story that went back many decades, or even many thousands of years. It triggered an intense interest in ordinary material conditions – in ordinariness – the overlooked, suppressed, even just the sheer crappiness of the everyday stuff.
I remember standing in the back garden of my parent’s house, gazing at something so familiar that for the first time seemed intensely strange. The house that formed the backdrop of life to that point was just a variety of materials brought together and held in place. It unsettled me. This was the kind of precarious feeling that comes when we think the unlikely apparatus underpinning all our banal thoughts and overwhelming emotions is a beating heart we hardly notice. The roof glowed white-blue in the moonlight. But it wasn’t a roof was it? It was cheap concrete tiles, black, puckered by the severe sun and rain and hail, chipped here and there, awkwardly joined at the ridge with the slack taken up in thick, crudely pointed mortar that had mostly flaked away. All the roofs I could see were just like it: peaks of scaly tiles, valleys of painted shiplap boards.
Our house sat just below the ridge of a small valley – a labyrinthine idyl of quarter-acre blocks, 2-car garages, and hardwood fences. The entire valley was first-generation suburbia. All built in the 70s from abundant hardwood framing brought down from further up the valleys, the place gave off a sense of security and confidence – it was as though a bushfire had cleared the land and this suburban dreamland had sprung up fully-formed from the soil. And the real history was not so different.
The valley had been an open-cut colliery up to about the end of the 1800s. Across the road from our house was a park, enough for a football pitch, and rising away from it up the sides of the bowl were strange wooded fingers of watercourses draining down into the field. Adjacent to the flat parkland they were exposed rock faces, still naked to the elements as though the miners had just left. Great exposed shingles of sedimentary rock crumbled and eroded in every downpour. These layers could easily be kicked away; chunks would flake off along sedimentary layers – and very often revealed detail imprints of ancient eucalyptus leaves that had blown into what was (and had remained) a swamp.
An old rail line ran behind our back fence and at least once a day a great procession of coal heaped high on the dirty train would thunder past the back garden. Shiny, eel-black lumps of coal would fall off and land beside the tracks in the overgrown weeds. I was still quite young when the trains stopped – their coal supply both depleted and too costly to maintain – and enjoyed exploring this corridor, picking up the stones of coal and twisted coils of railway sleeper fixings and bringing them home. Later, we and our neighbours would re-appropriate timber sleepers and great bucket-fulls of granite gravel from over the fence to use in the back gardens for little terraces, steps and stony walkways. Later still, all traces of the rail line were removed and covered in tarmac, turning it into a recreational cycleway for the growing suburban middle-class of the area, making it an easy ride through the restored convict-built rail tunnel to the nature reserves that tumbled down through the delicate eucalypt forests to the beach. All of these much older pathways, if you looked closely, still had their iron rails for pulling carts of coal by horse poking out here and there from the earth.
The first European ships to see the city sailed up the coast from the newly established Sydney colony and spotted at the entry to the harbour seams of coal in the cliff faces. That’s why they stayed. So thoroughly cleaned-out of coal the city centre is now effectively honeycombed, and the building codes testify the same. Like Rome, its story lies out of sight under the foundations. The harbour was consolidated to meet the needs of the colony and to export the cheap coal back to England. The harbour became a well-established coal port to the point it is now the largest in the world. Huge ships, like urban-scaled icebergs of city float in and out; taking away with them coal dug out of the ground from further up the valleys to take to new markets (mostly to fuel China’s boom). The wealth of the city spills inland, spreading with it the rash of concrete tiles and bloated suburbia just like the weeds of their gardens invading and colonising the forests and the streams.
Every time I think of that home I think of the black concrete tiled roofs – so inappropriate for the hot climate that an air-conditioner always comes with it.
I remember eating an apple at a friend’s house; an average-sized red apple. He had a few others in his fruit bowl that he had just bought. The sticker on mine said it was from Tasmania while the stickers on his said they were grown in California. They looked identical and tasted the same but were grown simultaneously on opposite sides of the Earth.