What became of the cowboy builders and the shonky jobs?

They came thundering over the horizon and across the Canterbury Plains in a swirl of dust and heat and beating hooves, nail pockets flapping wildly in the wind and spirit levels at the ready in the saddle holster. A posse of cowboy builders and renegade chippies mounted up and rode for the corrals of the Christchurch CBD, that earthquake-ravaged, dodgy city of the South.

From every point of the compass they came, holed up for years in the dead end gulches of shonky jobs. The "Do It Yourself Boys" - masters of the celebrated dwang, joist haulers and concrete-pad lads, warriors of the skill-saw and angle grinder, the chisel champs and jackhammer jocks, the under-cut boys; the "no-job-too-small-for-cash crews" camped out in the wastelands of far-flung suburbia. Meanwhile, across the ditch, from Caboolture to Gundagai, the bad boys of the rivet-gun and crow bar gangs hearing the call - saddled up and rode out. Not one Trade Certificate between them.

A scenario maybe that belongs to a chemically induced state of euphoria or short film treatment of the same. The DIY tradition lives on, last vestige of colonial self-sufficiency whose origins go back to settlement times and a healthy distrust of authority.

In Australia there existed once upon a time the sugar bag carpenter. I met an old codger at a pub in Bondi Junction - claimed he was the last of that old breed, and I believed him too; in fact, I wrote a poem about what he told me that sweltering summer afternoon on the eve of the new millennium. The poem, Sugerbag Carpenter subsequently appeared in my collection, Unmanned (1999). The poem kicks off like this:

Them days all you needed was a blunt saw & an axe thrown in a sack. If you could drive a 3" nail through a pound of butter you got the job and that's a fact - ask Bob the Builder who shook the hand of Banjo Patterson though no one believes him.

You didn't have to go far to find a builder who worked on the fringes outside of the system in Sydney in those days - the dude who operated alone. Newtown, inner west, Sydney, was where you would run into any number of these loner operators. Forget the North Shore and wealthy suburbs like Mosman.

That mob could easily afford a registered builder and pay the exorbitant prices and hidden costs that go with it. One can imagine the post-prandial patter on the patio: "How about a swanky, dinky-die feature wall for our Japanese rock garden darling?" says the merchant banker husband. "No worries," sighs the blonde wife, lunging for another magnum of champagne, "We can fit that in between the ladies bridge party and our trip to the Whitsundays next week."

The trick with these cowboy operators (I've met a few) was to recruit labourers from the local public bar. Cash payment at the end of each working day. No right of redress in this arena. You either wanted the job or you didn't.

There was always some other bum who would do it for quick cash. The boss invariably took you to the local pub for a liquid lunch. That meant you spent your lousy pay shouting rounds of drinks, as was the custom.

This meant you would work for "the man" the following day and the one after that. So it went.

One character who stood out in my neighbourhood was a tall bearded Russian, thin as an ironing board - we'll call him Ivan - who bore an uncanny resemblance to the "demonic monk" Rasputin, favourite of the Czar's wife in the good old days before the Russian Revolution liquidated the royal family. Rasputin got his, in the end.

Ivan was a White Russian, that is, a Russian born in China whose emigre family had fled the wrath of the Bolsheviks.

The jobs he did around Newtown were renovation jobs mostly; a new kitchen or complete makeover for the interior of a house. That way he avoided the building inspectors.

The owner got a fair job done at a fair price. No receipts, cash on the barrel head.

Folk in droves were moving into Newtown back in the late 80s, buying up workers' cottages and rundown two-storey or barrel terraces for a song and renovating. It was a veritable stampede.

Back then you could pick up a two-storey terrace house for around $70,000 or less in the inner west. These days you wouldn't get much change out of a million bucks buying real estate around Newtown.

Ivan was a legendary drinker. He was wont to hammer out a few classical tunes on a beat-up piano during an evening's socialising. Somehow one expects that of a Russian.

Stephen Oliver has published several volumes of poetry including Harmonic and more recently Apocrypha. He resides in the north King Country.

Waikato Times