In a couple of thousand years, archaeologists will dig up fragments from sites that I once inhabited. I like to think they will be completely baffled by the large number of broken pieces of concrete they find that don’t relate to any building that once stood on the land. They will conclude that along with the stone, bronze, and iron ages, there must have been a broken concrete age in New Zealand. Should they manage to piece the fragments together, they will have assembled one of my crazy paving paths, circa 1985.
Wherever I have been, the tranquility of my backyard has often been shattered by the dull thud of iron on concrete and the sound of stone fragments ricocheting off neighbouring roofs. I have taken long straight paths and smashed them up to make shorter, crooked paths. I have put Rome’s legendary roadbuilders to shame. I have paved my path to posterity.
The most ambitious project has been the lifting and breaking up of a concrete driveway that ran the length of the house to the front gate. Once again the neighbourhood rang to the cracking of concrete and rattling of my fillings as our backyard turned into a giant jigsaw puzzle patio. We hired a large steel bin. The patchwork of corrosion in the bottom of the bin wasn’t reassuring, but eventually our own Mount Concrete had arisen outside the front gate, blocking out the other side of the street. I hid inside when the pick-up truck arrived.
The driver hooked chains to the bin.
The truck roared. The chains strained.
The bin sat. Then with a loud creak, the cab and front wheels of the truck reared into the air. I ducked as the driver slowly turned his gaze on our house. His lips were moving. Later I heard him slowly drive away.
The crazy paving courtyard took three months to finish but the intricacy of my design, the subtle geometric harmony underlying the whole back-breaking project, was lost on the house’s new owner who uses it as a parking lot for his boat and jet ski.
Bricks in the DNA
Today, on a new house site high on a hill, I am making my masonry mark once again. But the sledgehammer stands idle. This time my medium is bricks, pallets of them. They have been salvaged from boilerhouses, factories and chimneys, some hard as rock, others bright orange and as brittle as fine china. A handful have their makers’ name stamped into them, such as the Wellington firm of Overend and Clarke, who had a quarry in Newtown in the late 1800s.
The late Norman Kirk once told a TV interviewer the exact number of bricks that had been used to build his house. When the reporter asked how he knew, Kirk replied he had laid them himself. I have wheelbarrowed and laid all 785 of ours. The next step is to get them all level. That won’t happen. Life’s too short. Like any real bloke, I am relying on my eyesight to get the whole lot level. I keep a spirit level nearby, as a prop.
My Anglo-Saxon and Norman ancestors were builders and stonemasons. The most illustrious of them was a Frenchman called Durand (Durandus in Latin) employed by William the Conqueror, according to the Doomsday Survey, to maintain the royal castle of Corfe, near Swanage on England’s Dorset coast. He was given the nearby manor of Moulham or Moleham in return.
In 877 AD Corfe castle was part of Alfred The Great’s defences when his ships drove 120 invading Danish longboats on to rocks off the Swanage coast. A decade later Corfe Castle was the scene of regicide when the 17-year-old King Edward the Second, later to be known as Edward the Martyr, was stabbed to death at the instigation of his stepmother Elfrida.
The De Moulhams and the manor parted company during the reign of Henry the Fifth when the last family heiress married and the property went out of the family’s hands. A royalist stronghold during England’s Civil War, it held out under siege for six months in 1645 until its garrison was betrayed from inside. Cromwell ordered the castle’s destruction.
The Moulham surname has varied in spelling over the centuries. Its most recent Anglicised form is Mowlem. The dust settled on the Mowlem lineage for a couple of hundred years until the appearance of John Mowlem in 1788, one of six children, who rose from humble beginnings to become a prosperous contractor. He mixed with royalty while his company paved London’s streets, rebuilt Billingsgate and Smithsfield Markets and Blackfriars Bridge. It has built docks, railways, tunnels and airfields, the new London Bridge, London City Airport and the Docklands Light Railway.
John Mowlem died childless in 1868, but a branch of the family eventually moved to New Zealand. Through various marriages, my family is directly linked to Durandus of Moulham and I have Mowlem as my third Christian name.
Corfe Castle may be in ruins, but the DNA of Durandus lives on.