Mid seventies and Cessnock Council had a problem.
Land was dirt cheap (sic) and allotments plentiful. As villages around Wollombi shrank, properties were abandoned. After a few years, those Old System titles were incorporated into surrounding farms, claimed by the simple mechanism of fencing them off and paying the rates.
Most farmers there were old and were happy to sell a few acres of old system titles for a few thousand dollars. After all, they cost them nothing and they all needed cash.
So, throughout the surrounding bush, shacks were built on reclaimed lots. Of my own property’s 32 titles, I could produce deeds for only sixteen.
My hundred acres shared a long boundary with Stephen and Catherine, artists, just back from living in Europe for a few years with their toddler David.
While repairing our common fence, I saw they were home again and wandered across to meet them. At that time, the hut was a single room with a huge fire place taking up most of a massive stone wall, a stove, a table and apart from a bed and cot not much else.
Over the next year Stephen bartered a few cases of beer at the Cessnock tip and brought home bricks, roofing iron, timber, doors and windows in fact almost all the material he needed to extend their hut along the escarpment to become an elegant three bedroom cottage with a proper bathroom, sited to command serene mountain and valley views. One unique feature was a two-seater long drop dunny that stood overlooking the long winding driveway, snaking its way up from Narone Creek Road. They could never be sprung.
Art was slow and Catherine was pregnant so Stephen took a job at Cessnock Correctional Centre as a counselor. All was well until the week before the baby was due.
Stephen was at work when Catherine saw a council ute grinding its way up the hill. Two suited officials alighted to ask to see her husband.
‘He’s at work. He works at the jail.’
‘OK,’ says the senior bully. ‘Tell him he has two weeks to pull this illegal building down or we do it and charge him for the labour.’
That was it. They climbed in and were watched by a devastated Catherie, as they disappeared into their own dust.
Catherine was alone, no phone and no car. She made it to my house on foot, hot tired and distraught and rang Stephen who went straight to the council office and demanded to see the bullies.
‘Be there on Sunday,’ he demanded. ‘You can explain to the media why you forced me to burn my home out from under my pregnant wife and infant son!’
Not waiting for a reply, he left and drove home. They weren’t far behind.
His dust was still settling when the same council ute raced up the driveway to brake dramatically beside him in front of the house.
Their eyes never left him as they climbed slowly out, faces revealing a mixture of fear and embarrassment.
He waited, arms folded.
‘Um, there’s no need to go off half cocked mate. We don’t want you to burn your house down, no way!’
‘I haven’t got time to knock the bloody thing down in a fortnight, I haven’t got the money to pay you blokes to do it, so the only fucking way to comply is to burn it, so burn it I will.’
‘Look, mate, I’m sure we can come to some understanding here. The problem is, the house was erected without Council approval. You need approval.’
‘It’s a bit late for that. The bloody thing’s up!’
‘Well, it is possible to get approval in retrospect, in cases like yours, maybe.’
‘And how do I maybe get that?’
‘Just draw up plans and drop them in to me and you might need to fix a few things up, that’s all.’
He looked around, settling in a brick pier that was not quite vertical.
‘Like you better straighten up that pier. OK?’
‘So it comes down to this. You started by demanding I knock my house down and now all you want is a pier straightened! Is that it?’
He walked inside leaving them there with nothing to say.
The question was never answered, the pier never straightened, plans never submitted and they never came back.