Fugly Built Environment: Reading Photo Essays – Books 15-20

Tim Winton and Mick Mischkulnig’s Smalltown is a photo essay of the ugly characterisitcs of far flung Australian towns.

There is nothing so bleak and forbidding in country Australia as the places humans have built here.

Reading through Tim Winton’s essay in Smalltown I was struck by his insight on Australian’s militant unfusiness and I’m in some way annoyed with myself for not having come across this essay before my home renovation. We had nice builders. They weren’t patronising, they listened to our needs – though they didn’t necessarily deliver what we asked for. But it is this quote about Australian tradespeople that stood out for me:

Tradespeople are not immune to this spirit of untouchable carelessness, for when it comes to a service rendered to others, rough enough is often still good enough. Robin Boyd died before ‘she’ll do, mate” made way for ‘fuck you, mate’ and worse. Militant unfussiness can seem amusing or even charming at a distance, but when you’re on the receiving end, paying for rubbish, getting it late and having to say thank you for the privelege, it’s ugly and deeply unfunny, a form of moronic bullying. Sometimes only the bravest amongst us dare to be fussy.

It was when our builders were putting up out ceilings and walls that I asked them why they had only bothered pulling out half the electricals. They laughed and said “Can’t make the electricians life to easy”. Well that was a big “fuck you” to me. Not only did they make the electrician’s work harder, therefore making his work longer therefore helping him earn more but under more stressful conditions but it also left me with disgust for a group of builders who I had started out thinking were lovely people. In future, I will keep Winton’s essay in mind when I am choosing tradespeople. Getting back to the book, Mischkulnig’s photography perfectly illustrates the sparseness, the impermanence of construction that Winton discusses.

Having completed Smalltown I went to my bookshelves to revisit old favourite books Meat, Metal and Fire and Blokes and sheds both by Mark Thomson. I wanted to look at them, not in the joyful celebration of man spaces that they were intended and in which I have always regarded them but as a reflection of Winton’s essay of celebrating this “good enough” culture. Instead of seeing the ingenuity of creating sheds, barbeques and the like, I chose to see them from the eyes of not needing to build things to last, denying permanance because this was not a space to stay in. This lends a tinge of unexpected sadness to these favourite books.

To add to this list, I also read Shack: in praise of an Australian icon By Simon Griffiths (yes, all these books in the same day. It helped that they were all pictorial essays). Shack celebrates the rough and tumble shack. Some as holiday homes, others as workplaces and others as permanent homes. And though beautifully appointed, I couldn’t help but reflect back to Winton’s stark essay. It is not that Winton’s essay changed any of my perceptions. I would say he validated opinions that I have held for a very long time.

Late at night, I decided to cap off my fugly built environment reading day with a touch of irony by reading Dorothea McKellar’s poem My Country. As it is not this brown, plague-ridden, drought-stricken, flooded land that is at fault. Our land is wonderous. It is what we build on it that needs to be rethought.

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