I cannot help liking manhole covers. In fact they feature in quite a few of my blog posts. In October 2010 I wrote: They are reminders that the pavement is not only a floor but a roof – the roof of a busy world of tunnels, tubes, chambers and canals; of light, electricity, water and workers. Manhole covers are shutters on the skylights in this roof.
But why do I persist in calling them manhole covers? I am usually careful about using gender-neutral language, and there are alternative terms available – service cover, access hatch, maintenance hole, for instance.
Although part of the answer is inertia – that’s what I’ve always called them – there is also the desire to align myself with a loose but international oddball fraternity of people who find aesthetic satisfaction in manhole covers. They admire the dull sheen of worn cast iron, remark upon the distinctive municipal manhole embellishments in Japan, take rubbings from old street covers and reproduce them in knitted bedcovers, and photograph tiny weed gardens growing in the patterned indentations.
If ‘manhole’ had not been part of my vocabulary I might have missed Mimi and Robert Selnick’s lovely book of black and white photographs, Manhole Covers. I certainly would not have found one of my all-time favourite websites, Tim Pitman’s Misplaced Manhole Covers. Worse still, people interested in manhole covers would never find my site.
Anyway, does it really matter that we call them manhole covers? It’s an established term in the English language. My copy of the Macquarie Dictionary (Revised edition 1985) defines ‘manhole’ as a hole, usu. with a cover, through which a man may enter a sewer, drain, steam boiler, etc. And there you have it. Why does their name need to be gender inclusive? It’s men who use manholes because it’s men who do the dirty work underground.
That was the entrenched opinion of many people when Andy Mitchell, the chief executive at Thames Tideway Tunnel, recently announced that he wanted to achieve gender parity by the time construction of London’s ‘super sewer’ was finished in 2023. There was a response of disbelief because, after all, this is a distinctly unglamorous construction project in a ‘man’s world’.
Browsing around a bit more I found a string on Yahoo! Answers/Social Science/Gender studies in response to the question ‘Why don’t women often choose jobs such as coal miner sewer worker etc. are these jobs unfeminine?’. While most replies were ill-informed, anti-woman and/or anti-feminist rants, there were some interesting thoughts amongst them.
One person wrote that those dirty, dangerous, unhealthy, jobs are called ‘glass cellar’ jobs. Feminists, he maintained, are only concerned with the ‘glass ceiling’, and look to the top in an attempt to shame society into giving women ‘positions of power’. They should also be looking at getting equal positions for women at the bottom. Men choose those jobs because they pay well as a trade-off for safety and comfort.
In reply to others who insisted that women won’t do dirty jobs, one man wrote, “In my former metropolitan area, the Labor Council and many of the individual unions sponsor a program to recruit and train more women for labor jobs. With no exceptions, whenever they open the books, every single available spot is grabbed by a woman looking to get in”.
A couple of years ago, the Daily Mail reported that two young women were to become the first females in Britain to start an apprenticeship in waste. The newspaper’s headline read ‘The pay’s OK but the hours stink’. Looking for an alternative to office work, these women applied for a position with South West Water where their jobs would involve visiting sewerage works, hand-raking raw sewage, taking samples for testing and using rods to clear blockages.
Change, of course, isn’t always easy. A New York Daily News article sub-headed ‘They work in the sewers all day, but they say the really nasty stuff wasn’t in the pipes – it was in the locker rooms’ tells the story of two woman laborers for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, who have withstood years of threats and insults from male colleagues treating the agency as ‘a man’s world’. The pair claim that they were denied overtime and promotions, and that the few other women in the agency were driven out by constant harassment.
But, as Andy Mitchell continues in the Thames Tideway article, ” From my first day in the job, I knew this was a place where we could achieve something different which would leave a legacy for generations about how good the construction world can be. This is not really a man’s world: we need women, and we need diversity […] We are working to create a culture that finds out from women themselves what they want and how they think we can attract their counterparts. It’s not a bunch of blokes sat around a table making assumptions on why we think women don’t want to work in construction. We are finding out the true obstacles so that we can we try to overcome them”.
Back to manhole covers, then. Baden Eunson tells us that ‘manhole’ is a restricting name that reinforces traditional gender roles. Such terms are examples of the ways in which the English language reinforces patriarchy. Other examples include spotlighting (male nurse, career woman); dimunitivisation (actress, waitress); differential naming (Mr Smith and the girls from Accounting); and featurism (Prime Minister Julia Gillard wore a little black dress and a collarless blazer with olive green sleeves when she gave her farewell speech). Eunson’s article on ‘Gender-neutral communication: how to do it’ was published in a recent issue of The Conversation.
Amongst speakers (or writers) who persist with masculinely-loaded language, some do so because they are openly opposed to all this feminist nonsense and what they think it stands for. As for the rest, some are fuddy-duddies who do not want to put effort into changing old habits. Others do not want to sound conspicuous amongst peers who normally use non-inclusive language. Of course, even amongst these people, I think there are those whose resistance to gender-neutral language is really an indicator of their resistance to gender equality, even if they won’t admit it to themselves.
Where does that leave me and manhole covers? Down amongst the fuddy-duddies, I suppose. Since I intend to go on photographing these enduring items of street furniture, it is up to me to find a term for them that I can use consistently and comfortably – ‘cast iron street covers’, perhaps. But I will probably still include ‘manhole covers’ in the list of tags and keywords for relevant posts, in the needy hope that this will bring some extra hits and likes.
Melnick, Mimi & Robert Melnick, Manhole covers, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1994.
Today is the anniversary of the launch of this blog. It was on 3 May 2009 that I wrote the first post and welcomed readers to Pavement Graffiti, “where asphalt rules and grey is good. The focus is on roadways and footpaths, and ‘graffiti’ means anything written, drawn, scrawled or stencilled on them”.
Back then I had embarked on a PhD at Macquarie University, also titled Pavement Graffiti. Six years on, the PhD has been achieved, there is a gallery of images on-line at Pavement Appreciation and a Facebook page of the same name, academic articles have been published, magazine articles too. From time to time journalists stumble upon the blog and ask my opinion about graffiti, Eternity or, as happened this week, walkable cities. The blog does not have a huge following but I am grateful to those who have given long-standing support or have simply shown a fleeting interest.
My interests have broadened to encompass a concern for the disappearance of strange spaces, areas of decay, and layered sites under the pressure of urban renewal (or urban homogenization). I am now an Adjunct Fellow of the Urban Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney.
But I still retain my fascination for the pavement and am currently waiting to hear if my article on ‘Imagining the pavement: a search through everyday texts for the symbolism of an everyday artefact’ has been accepted for publication. Watch this space.
And do, please, continue to enjoy the literary adventure of reading the street beneath your feet.
Comedian Dave O’Neil has been to see the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition, From the sidewalk to the catwalk, at the National Gallery of Victoria. He liked it because he’s into seeing what one person can achieve in a lifetime. But as Dave says in his newspaper column:
“It’s kind of sad that it’s mostly famous people who get exhibitions and accolades.
“Gautier rightfully gets his time in the sun, but what about other people who have contributed to society in some of the less glamorous fields? Wouldn’t you love to see an exhibition tracking the life of a road worker?
“Someone who goes around fixing potholes and other structural problems in the roads.
“Imagine the before and after shots of carefully repaired roads, a map pinpointing all the achievements and major works over the years.
“I can see a Next Wave Festival highlight already. I’m putting in for funding as soon as I finish writing this column.”
Yes please, Dave.
Dave O’Neil, ‘Man about town: celebrities are not the only ones who deserve an exhibition about their life’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 February 2015, The Shortlist, p.2.
In Sydney’s Angel Place, Michael Thomas Hill wants us to experience longing for nature long since lost and destroyed. His ‘Forgotten Songs’ installation charms us with its hanging bird cages and piped calls of native birds. But the sting is on the roadway where brass plaques inform us that the birds we are listening to “once sang in central Sydney, before Europeans settled and gradually forced them away”. The list of bird names inscribed there is like a wartime honour roll that we should follow along the laneway, lest we forget. The name label for the Regent Honeyeater is coincidentally positioned beside a manhole cover that, if opened up, would reveal the Tank Stream coursing beneath the lane in its modern-day guise as a stormwater pipe. Not only have trees been felled, Hill is reminding us, but the natural features of the landscape have been obliterated by the pavement itself.
But be careful what you want us to wish for, Michael. Regret the loss of charming songbirds and what do we get instead? Squadrons of honking ibis – swampland birds that have flown back from the countryside to learn the art of city living. Street smart and urban savvy, these scavengers revel in consumerism’s cast-offs.
Michael Thomas Hill’s ‘Forgotten songs’ installation belongs to a class of text-laden public artworks on the pavement that reproach us for wrongdoings past and present. I have written about these in an article called ‘Words of regret’ in Issue 3 of Sturgeon magazine, which has just hit the stands.
Black Santa was an Erskineville man, Syd ‘Doc’ Cunningham, who used to distribute presents to rural children every Christmas. Syd would sit outside the Woolworths supermarket in King Street, Newtown, collecting money and toys throughout the year. Around Christmastime he would give a Christmas card to people who dropped money in his bucket.
After Syd died in 1999 a bronze plaque was installed at the spot where he used to set up his folding table. On it was a depiction in relief of his plastic bucket.
In 2000 the footpath was repaved, with synthetic bluestone pavers replacing the asphalt.
Before the works commenced the plaque was removed. But in the place where it had been glued to the footpath, somebody wrote an impromptu memorial to Black Santa in red chalk.
After the repaving was finished, the original plaque was reinstalled, and it’s still there today. The supermarket itself has changed hands a few times. Currently it’s an IGA. And Syd’s plaque has become the focal point for beggars who keep his memory alive by collecting for themselves.
Funny thing though. Just a few days ago, someone wrote a post about the plaque on the Republic of Newtown Facebook page, adding, ‘ Sadly, the plaque was removed when the footpath was resurfaced’. Somehow this person had failed to notice that the plaque was put back fourteen years ago. That Facebook page got many comments and even though several noted that the plaque was still there, quite a few comments demanded that the plaque be replaced. Sentimental indignation prompted by misinformation. It happens.
Glossy black dance floor or ashen skin or something else entirely? The asphalt pavement stirs the poetic imagination of some writers but the hard truth spoils the romance of the blacktop.
It was Vladimir Nabokov who wrote , ‘Voraciously we consumed those long highways, in rapt silence we glided over their glossy black dance floors’. Australian author Jessica Anderson says of one of her characters, ‘… in her visual memory of Sydney as a city predominantly blue and green and terra-cotta, there had been an element missing. And here it was, this ashen skin covering not only the road, but the footpaths as well’.
Unfortunately that dark covering is making Sydney hotter because it absorbs heat and radiates it back out. Sustainability campaigner Michael Mobbs has the figures to show that suburbs with black roads and few trees suffer badly during heatwaves. It’s called the urban heat island effect, and to counter it the City of Sydney is conducting trials in Chippendale using lighter-coloured surfaces on some roadways. The pale pavement is open grade asphalt filled with concrete slurry.
Mobbs has been monitoring the trial. He says it reduces the temperatures by two to four degrees on a hot day, and predicts that during heatwaves there may be six to eight degrees difference. Death rates rise in cities during heatwaves, so that difference could save lives. Glary though.
Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita. 1955.
Jessica Anderson. The impersonators. 1980.
This week I have been thinking about the role the pavement can play in our thoughts and feelings about particular places and times in our lives. Long after the Hong Kong pro-democracy protest is over, and whatever the outcome, the gritty surface of the city’s public spaces will figure largely in the memories of the people who took part. The asphalt has been a major player in the drama of the so-called Umbrella Revolution.
Protestors themselves remove slogans and graffiti from the street. Getty Images
When I need a laugh I pull out my copy of Unreliable Memoirs by Australian ex-patriot polymath Clive James. The whole book is funny but one of my favourite passages involves concrete footpaths, billy carts and rubber tyre marks. Oh, and poppies.
The pavement often appears in people’s reminiscences of childhood. This is not remarkable, especially if they lived in inner city areas when they were young. After all, children are close to the pavement and playing on it is an everyday experience – or at least it was when children had more freedom. There were games like hopscotch and chalk chase that needed to be marked out on the hard surface, rhymes and chants about avoiding the cracks (or break your mother’s back), and hot sticky bitumen roads that were torture to cross in bare feet in the summertime.
Even in the sprawling suburbs where spacious backyards were the norm, streets served as a communal playground for ball games and competitive races that could only be staged on paved surfaces. Clive James played with neighbourhood kids on the footpaths of Kogarah, a suburb of Sydney.
James has been in the news lately. He is suffering from a terminal illness and The New Yorker has published an emotional new poem written by him as he contemplates his death. Also this fortnight there has been the two-part documentary Brilliant Creatures: Germaine, Clive, Barry and Bob on ABC-TV. So as a tribute to him I reproduce here an excerpt that introduces the episode of the billycarts and poppies. If you haven’t already read the book – or even if you have – I recommend you track down a copy.
Other children, most of them admittedly older than I, but some of them infuriatingly not, constructed billycarts of advanced design, with skeletal hard-wood frames and steel-jacketed ball-race wheels that screamed on the concrete footpaths like a diving Stuka. The best I could manage was a sawn-off fruit box mounted on a fence-paling spine frame, with drearily silent rubber wheels taken off an old pram … Carts racing down the footpath on the far side had a straight run of about a quarter of a mile all the way to the park … Carts racing down the footpath on the near side could only go half as far, although nearly as fast, before being faced with a right-angle turn into Irene Street. Here a pram-wheeled cart like mine could demonstrate its sole advantage. The traction of the rubber tyres made it possible to negotiate the corner in some style. I developed a histrionic lean-over of the body and a slide of the back wheels which got me round the corner unscathed, leaving black smoking trails of burnt rubber.
Clive James, Unreliable memoirs, London: Picador, 1981.
The billycart photograph is in the collection of Museum Victoria. Reg. No: MM 110102
Ernest Reynolds was a street showman, a colourful character who made a living as a pavement artist for over 30 years. His home town was Adelaide in South Australia and he claimed to have travelled the world as a seaman and artist. On the tramp around country towns in Australia, he drew such crowds that he often rated a mention in local newspapers as ‘the swagman artist’. His career as a ‘pioneer in chalks’ began in Sydney around 1900 and by the 1930s he was setting up his pitch in places like Adelaide, Mount Gambier (SA), Broken Hill (NSW) and Kalgoorlie (WA).
Described by reporters as a ‘picturesque personality’, Mr Reynolds called himself ‘a travelling artist and scientist’ and made pronouncements about scientific matters including, for instance, the geological origins of the Blue Lake in Mount Gambier. In Sydney, he said, he had been decreed the world’s champion pavement artist in 1930, and he liked to be referred to as the King of Pavement Artists.
He also told reporters that he was a descendent of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the famous 18th century English painter. But his most famous pavement art work was a rendition of William Holman Hunt’s 1910 religious painting, ‘The Light of the World’, which he could do in 6 hours 18 minutes. Once, after this picture had been on the pavement for several days in Broken Hill, the Barrier Miner newspaper reported that ‘ one devout woman … to prevent its desecration by the feet of the multitude, visited the spot with scrubbing brush and soap and washed the pavement clean’.
Reynolds made amusing comparisons about the generosity of various towns. In Sydney, he said, the people hurry past and ‘let you starve on!’ And in Mount Gambier he told a reporter that the public did not seem to be aware of the fact that he was doing this work for a living. The journalist duly wrote that ‘he would like them to realise that a silver coin would be acceptable’.
The drawing at the top of this blog post is copied from another blog Cipher Mysteries. Blogger Nick Pelling found Ernest Reynolds while hunting down another person named Reynolds (it’s complicated) but does not mention where he found the picture.
But I first encountered Ernest Reynolds in yet another blog, All my own work! – a history of pavement art by Philip Battle. I have since found out more by searching for newspaper articles about Reynolds in the National Library of Australia’s marvellous resource, Trove.
Philip Battle’s stories about screeving – mostly in Britain – are based on meticulous research and his posts feature wonderful archival illustrations. Philip is now turning his blog into a book, and he is hoping to raise a modest sum to publish it through crowd funding. Perhaps you would like to help him.