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Posted on 17 Aug 2018 in The Godfather: Peter Corris |

The Godfather: Peter Corris on a suburban hot spot

Very kindly, a neighbour recently gave Jean a jar of home-made marmalade. I was reminded that my mother used to make jam and what a hive of DIY activity the dreary southern suburb of Bentleigh, Melbourne, really was.

As I’ve mentioned before, my father cemented paths and borders to the max – measuring, levelling, mixing, smoothing, et cetera. He also helped install electrical wire in my sister’s prefab sleep-out and his shed, which was stocked with tools and equipment for all kinds of maintenance – carpentry, plumbing, wiring. He built and installed fly screens for the windows and built a carport when he acquired an ancient Vauxhall Tourer. This he maintained and serviced himself, draining the sump and greasing the points (whatever that meant). When, later, he cashed in an insurance policy (on whom I never knew and would not have had the temerity to ask) and bought a second-hand but fairly late-model Holden, he lavished it with tender loving care.

There were three fruit trees in the back yard of our standard quarter-acre block – an apple, an apricot and a plum. My mother made apricot and plum jam and apple jelly in jars she sealed with wax. She made presents of them to friends and relatives. Green-fingered, she grew camellias which she sold to a local florist.

The sandy soil of the area was fertile apparently and the large vegetable plot was a scene of experimentation. I remember a small stand of sweet corn that was not replanted, perhaps because nobody knew how best to cook it. Again a pumpkin patch (no aubergines or zucchini in those days) was not repeated because it took over the whole space. But spring onions, carrots and the detestable parsnips flourished.

The grass grew apace as I had reason to know because it was my job to cut it. The clippings were kept for mulch for some plants and kept moist to be prepared for foul-smelling compost for others.

Having to retrieve tennis balls from over the back fence, I learned that the back yard behind ours was almost totally given over to vegetables. It may have been a mini-market garden, but grow-your-own was a common feature in the outer suburbs and may have been one of the reasons my parents bought there. Bentleigh had little else to recommend it.

Of course, in those years before words such as global and warming, climate and change, were paired, the address was a tiny carbon and methane hot spot. Rubbish, leaves and newspapers were burned in the back-yard incinerator. Brown coal briquettes were burned in the hot water system and in an internal horror in the living room called a Warm Ray. Electricity, provided by the all-powerful State Electricity Commission and derived from burning dirty brown coal in the La Trobe Valley, was king with one exception. Solar power was harnessed in the form of the iconic Hill’s Hoist.

It has all gone now, quite literally. Ours was one of five houses running down to the next street from the boundary of a Catholic convent. At one point, I’m not sure when, the church bought all five properties and demolished the houses to expand the convent. I imagine it is more careful of its money these days.

I suppose the lifestyle had its points – a measure of self-reliant, physical activity and the development of useful skills, but I’m not nostalgic for it (as for a cherished farm or a terrace house in a lively neighbourhood) and, apart from a visit to my mother in in the early 1970s, I have never been back to Bentleigh.