Bert Hill’s house is up for sale, part of the rezoning for commercial use of that section of Payne road, The Gap, where I grew up in Brisbane during the 1950s. The buyer will demolish it as others have the houses on either side. Neither the National Trust nor the Heritage Commission will interest itself in its preservation. Yet, Bert Hill’s house is a monument for what is now called the Menzies era.
Bert Hill was not our only neighbour to live in a temporary dwelling while giving his spare time to the erection of a permanent abode. Next door to us, Dave Napier, a building tradesman and red-hot unionist, worked on a fibro house while his wife and six kids lived in a tent and what they called the shack.
My parents were different. I was an only child; my mother worked; and my father had supplemented his wage as an unskilled tannery worker by pencilling for a bookmaker on the flat. Yet they were lucky to get their five square weatherboard – and- fibro house finished just before the Menzies government came to office and lifted price controls. A year later, my father’s best friend paid almost twice as much for a slightly smaller dwelling which wasn’t even up on stumps .
Bert Hill built his house brick by brick, throughout the 1950s. He did it by himself. Most men got their mates or relatives to help them with the bigger tasks . He had to pay for the electrician and the plumber because the council insisted on qualified tradesmen.
The house was double- cavity brick throughout. Whenever Bert had saved enough money he would order another truckload of bricks and cement. The interior bricks could be unloaded by the driver and his offsider, but Bert insisted that the face bricks be stacked one-by-one. For this task, his children were marshalled and I would lend a gloved hand. He watched over those expensive bricks as if they were eggs. Their condition would show his face to the world.
He laid them with a precision which would have impressed any craftsman. After troweling out the mortar, he applied his spirit level along each addition, tapping it until it was not so much as a twentieth of an inch out of alignment. This meticulousness slowed down construction but was essential to his project . He did not have the energy for anything less than perfection .
Gapites considered Bert Hill a good husband and father. Unlike the men on either side, he did not drink. Every penny went into the house, or for the housekeeping . His one indulgence was the cheapest tobacco which he rolled into cigarettes as thin as wax matches; he unpicked his butts to make another from the charred ends. His match-thin legs stuck out beneath the baggy khaki shorts he wore as he worked on his house .
Bert Hill never went on holidays, unlike Dave Napier who packed his family into their tiny ute to spent the holidays in a smaller tent , fishing and swimming in the Tewantin river. Dave’s fibro was cheaper and easier to erect than Bert’s bricks.
Bert had no time or money for friends or hobbies . He joined the local ALP branch after the 1957 split but came to few of the fund raisers at our house when he would have only two beers, while his doll-like wife, Marcia, sat on her single shandy throughout the evening. Two beers were enough to make him tipsy and he would join the singing around the piano, croaking out the choruses between draws on his fag .
Just as he had no friends, so he was not drawn into the Balkan of suburban squabbles. He confined hostilities to emptying his chamber pot over the fence into the vegetable garden of that ‘German bitch’, Mrs McAllister. If she were unwise enough to complain he would ask her what time her Andy had got home, how drunk had he been, and how many jobs he had lost that year. The McAllisters lived in a temp with not as much as a trench dug for their house.
Bert growled at his kids but rarely raised his hand to them. The only violence I witnessed was one night when he came in from plastering one of the four bedrooms to sit down for his meat and three veg. I was puzzled as to why he ran his finger along the edge of his plate two or three times. Then, he picked it up and threw the meal into the corner, plastering the tiles with potato, pumpkin and gravy ‘You can’t even give a man a bloody hot plate,’ he shouted as he barged out . None of the men in out street were known for beating their wives. The only case of domestic violence I heard about was that Mrs McAllister might beat up Andy when he came home drunk and broke.
One morning as I waited at the bus-stop, the oldest of Bert’s four daughters, Beverley, ran across the main road into the path of car overtaking the parked bus. Tossed into the air, screaming, she spun several times, her sky blue dress and hooped white petticoats, part of the fashion for Square Dancing , creating a pattern against the sky which called to my Catholic imagination a visitation by Our Lady of Fatima.
I left my schoolbag on the footpath and raced up to the Hills to break the news that she had been killed. Mrs Hill ran out of the temp in her slippers. Beverley had landed on her buttocks with compound fractures to her left thigh. She was lucky. A neighbour called Bert at his work as a telephone technician – he never afforded a phone. When Bev came home from hospital, with her leg in plaster up to her hip, she lay on a cane settee on the porch which was open to the street because Bert could not yet afford to build its glass doors. From there she chatted with passers-by, and in that condition contrived to get pregnant.
Bert Hill’s cough had been how I used to identify him before he came into sight. I dreaded the spitting more. As he put the final touches to his masterwork, he began to grow ill. At first, the days off work offered opportunities to plaster and paint. Then came periods in hospital. He had cancer of the lung. As he lay on his now completed porch, puffing away, he kept its doors open but not many people stopped to chat with this cantankerous man who had difficulty breathing let alone conversing. I saw little of him for I now drove everywhere in a 1952 Austin A40. He never owned a car.
Bert died in his early fifties, his monument complete and his family secure in the house he had built for them.
In his day, Bert Hill was considered a good provider. Now the work to which he gave his life is to be knocked down. The architectural value would be worth preserving only as one more exemplar of what dedication during that decade of suburbanisation summoned forth. More difficult to know is how to evaluate the manner of his generation of men. An autocrat of the meal table? Or a frugal father who expressed his love in the way he thought best, as brick upon brick?