The Quarter Acre Block




Mrs Stanley’s was the first to go: she was old. Her garden was not only huge but verdant and she was often seen gardening in it and the heat and a wide brimmed hat. But when she died the block was subdivided. Her trees were cut down and an ugly little house was built where her garden had been.


As a teenager, nothing struck horror into my heart like the words ‘working bee’. It is an antipodean expression; a noun for an occasion when volunteers come together to carry out communal work. It is often in the garden and always (in my memory) in the heat.


‘The Australian Dream’ has always been to own your own home. Increasingly though ‘The Australian Dream’ is - just that - a dream. The dream was to own your own home on a quarter acre block with a garden. The Australian suburbs were, for most of the twentieth century, low density. This was, in part, due to the availability of space but also, in part, due to the post-war European migrants who, having come from high density Europe, saw the luxury of space as the luxury it was.


There was a trampoline, a palm tree, an umbrella tree and a trapeze. Mango, avocado and macadamia trees were widespread and our garden beds were edged with red bricks. Before the water restrictions there was a sprinkler on the ‘lawn’ which was clumpy and riddled with ‘bindis’ that stabbed needle-sharp seeds into bare feet. Some people had swimming pools and Hills Hoists *. Italian families grew tomatoes. Everyone (apart from us) had a barbecue.


Mum, unlike many, did not subdivide but she renovated and extended the house into the block. The suburb both shrank and expanded. There was less space but more homes and whole streets became unrecognisable. Only the old people left things alone. But as soon as they died someone swooped in, eager to put their own stamp on the thing and carve a small niche for themselves.


Real-estate agents cheerfully state that our lifestyles have changed. We spend less time outdoors, we own air-conditioners and no one can be arsed with the upkeep: the teenage me, would have approved. Back then the whole thing: the garden, the D.I.Y., the working bees, the sound of lawn mowers, the eternal funk of Sunday - made me want to die. Or leave. Which I did. And maybe it is only age and distance that makes me feel that something has been lost. But on the rare occasions that I do go back - I do get lost. Apart from the odd remaining thing – a house or tree that escaped the progress – my childhood has been renovated and the garden is gone.


* an iconic, free standing, adjustable clothes line, invented in Australia and common in many suburban backyards.