Thinking about the material realities of working with bluestone, this popped in my email box and I'm delighted to introduce my first guest post on this project from my dear friend Andrew Lynch, recently appointed as the new Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. Andrew tells me this is his first blog; so I'm doubly thrilled. Here's the word from the top, folks!
Your blog and our conversation reminded me of a past association with bluestone. In the summer after my first year at Melbourne I got a job as a labourer on Kew City Council. The casual employees, nearly all university students like me, did various work. Usually we went out on the 'chippy gang'. We weren't carpenters, as the term would now suggest. A 'chippy' was given a stick about a metre long (I'm estimating) with a triangular-bladed head attached – this was also called a chippy. The job was to wield the blade to cut or prise couch grass and weeds out of the bluestone gutters in the dominions of the Council. Bluestone blocks are of course impermeable, but grass easily gets into the gaps between them, trapping moisture in which it can grow to Triffid proportions if left alone. We, the chippies, were in the front line: animal versus vegetable, with the aid of mineral.
There were two kinds of chippy – one had a metal pole with the blade welded on; in the other the blade was riveted to a wooden handle. The metal pole was more secure, but continually banging it against bluestone jarred your hands and arms worse. After a day using either version, you (the part-timer) woke next morning with cramped fingers and blisters. Naturally, we needed many breaks from our labour: a chippy made a passable cricket bat when called on. The real council workers claimed the poles were getting badly bent from being leaned on so often by the 'students': this was clearly an ancient and well-loved joke. One of the regulars, an elderly Italian known as 'Poppa', amazed us by taking up the chippy and rapidly clearing swathes of greenery from a blocked drainage channel, down in East Kew somewhere. He was a professional, and wanted to show us how it should be done. Seamus Heaney would have known how to write about his technique.
I had spent all my life in Kew, but on the other side of the junction, in the leafy streets off Studley Park Road where the chippies never ventured. Naturally, we tended to work the lower, wetter ground. That was a time when people on the 'basic wage' or worse still lived in parts of Kew. At the Council's 'staff Christmas dinner, an 'outdoor employee' unashamedly came up with a sack and swept the leftovers into it to take home. This was also the time when councils began replacing a lot of the bluestone gutters with concrete and selling off the dressed blocks cheaply. A few years later, when I lived in Station St, North Carlton, the neighbour next door built a head-height bluestone wall enclosing his tiny front yard. It's still there: https://www.google.com.au/maps/@-37.78986,144.975281,3a,75y,354.26h,89.16t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1s2wvYt4bW8W4ZX1XC4G2f6A!2e0 But then, in that area, so are the gutters. They were made to last.
I doubt there's been a chippy gang for a long time. Even then, we had competition in the war on weeds: the herbicide spray van driven by Hec. Hec did no other job, but still it must have been considered that were some places where nothing but the bodily application of metal to bluestone was adequate. That was where we came in.