I've kept this blog, on and off, since 2006. In 2015 I used it to chart daily encounters, images, thoughts and feelings about volcanic basalt/bluestone in Melbourne and Victoria, especially in the first part of the year. I plan to write a book provisionally titled Bluestone: An Emotional History, about human uses of and feelings for bluestone. But I am also working on quite a few other projects and a big grant application, especially now I am on research leave. I'm working mostly from home, then, for six months, and will need online sociability for company!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: Pentridge

Where to begin??

It's a bright and sunny Melbourne day with the promise of a dry south-westerly wind change later in the afternoon. Deirdre picks me up and we meet Helen and Anne at the café for our tour of Pentridge's D Division.

We are lucky with our guide, Vaughn. We four are the only ones on the tour, so we can choose whether to focus on architecture and the bluestone, or gruesome stories about the prisoners. Some of the state's most notorious criminals lived here: Ned Kelly, Chopper Read, Carl Williams, Jean Lee, Ronald Ryan (the last two hanged here). Vaughn was a warden here in 1978, but is also a lover of history, and a brilliant story-teller. And in spite of our declared interest in stone, we did certainly veer back to the stories about the inmates. It's a human place, after all.

One thing that became abundantly clear is how huge the whole complex is. Much of the land has been sold for private development, and there are numerous of wings of rather ugly-looking apartments, making awkward attempts to integrate the existing bluestone walls. The newly discovered panopticon exercise yards are in another area altogether and we will have to make a separate time to visit them, if we can.

I also had a proper camera with me, though I haven't yet worked out how to zoom, and haven't yet connected it to the computer, but here are two shots I took with the phone after we had driven around the whole area: these are the main gates...

With notes, photos, and four people asking questions and taking notes, I have enough material for a week's blog posts, to say nothing of a chapter for the book. Helen has already done a lot of work on Pentridge, and of course, there are many publications to read.

The main thing I learned today was how to start reading bluestone construction a little better. How the outer walls of Pentridge are formed by two layers of thinner bluestone, filled in with rubble and bricks. How a wooden frame was used to shape the really long slabs used in the cell walls. How the blocks were cemented together with lime and sand, with great precision. But that precision made it easy (relatively) to ease out a large stone; and one was big enough to allow a body to squeeze through. Vaughn had found a prisoner in exactly that act, with the stone half out of his cell wall. Prisoners used to escape all the time, but the cops would tell the guards, 'don't shoot them': i.e., don't ruin your own lives; as we'll catch them and bring them back. There was a distinctive chiselled effect on lots of the stones: something to look out for. I'm learning to tell the difference between (relatively) earlier and later work on a particular site, between high status and less important walls. The floors of D division were large squares: also bluestone, though smooth as slate. And you could also see dips and wear in the heavily used areas near doorways. We noticed that the windows on many of the cells were painted over. The prisoners would do it, to give themselves more darkness, to be able to sleep better during the day. This was one of the saddest things.

Helen or Deirdre asked about the prisoners breaking the bluestones, "It was a torture," Vaughn said. I had always thought there was a very precise connection between Pentridge and the bluestone dug out of what became the Coburg lake but that connection wasn't in the foreground of the discourse today.

And finally -- there'll be more, once  I write up my notes, and unload my photos -- the great irony was that bluestone made it very hard to see escaping prisoners. So many of the corners of the buildings were whitewashed, to make it easier to see the silhouettes of escapees as they broke out.

I thought our visit might tell us a lot about the prison's origins and construction; and so it did. But what I feel most is the weight of all these stories, from one guard's experience, at the time of my own adolescence.

UPDATE:  I was telling my friend over drinks this evening about this project and the day's excursion, and she told me that her ex-husband had once arrested Ronald Ryan and had admired him for his agility as he raced over the rootftops: it sounded like something out of Oliver Twist. Anyway they developed a bit of a relationship, and Ryan even invited Bryan to his hanging. Bryan declined the invitation...

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