Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Hard-working road crew real poetry in motion

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Are there awards for road workers? The Pulitzers of road maintenance? There should be. Photo / APN
Are there awards for road workers? The Pulitzers of road maintenance? There should be. Photo / APN

My relationship with the roadworkers digging up my street is strangely intimate. My front door opens right on to the pavement; so here I am, in my nightie, eating my artisanal toast and about an arm's length away there they are, digging up the pavement for weeks on end.

They arrive at 7 in the morning, and then stand there for a bit. There is a lot of standing around when you're a road worker but please don't think I'm saying they're slacking.

Standing around when it is muntingly hot and the tarmac is melting and smelly and you have to wear an all-weather fluoro raincoat, in the sweltering heat of summer, is hard yakka.

Are there awards for road workers? The Pulitzers of road maintenance? There should be. As a former shop assistant I can attest that standing around doing nothing is torture.

There is one young woman, smiley, attractive even in her fluoro burka and hard hat, who seems to have the job of guarding the end of the road. That's. Her. Job. She stands there all day long in the baking sun. Just standing there. For hours.

On the odd occasion one of the residents drives by - action stations! She has to move the day-glo cone in the middle of the road and let us through. Even operating a Stop-Go sign would feel like a high-pressure executive promotion.

But being on such familiar terms with the road workers, I can report that far from being surly as they toil at their tedious jobs, they are fastidiously, embarrassingly polite.

They help my children and I climb over the melting tarmac each day, acting as if we are the lady of the manor with her Little Lord Fauntleroys and a puff of dust might be fatal to our delicate sensibilities.

It makes me feel nauseatingly like Marie Antoinette.

The gal at the end of the road smiles at me every day as I walk past on my way to university. One day, as I clambered over the rubble feeling like Martha Gellhorn, she yelled out "Like your boots" approvingly.

I just smiled and said thanks and wished I could think of something flattering to say in return, but thought it would sound disingenuous to return the compliment.

I felt shame, and not just because my boots were expensive. But also because I was off to my new course at university, possibly the most jammy academic course ever conceived, a Masters of Arts in Creative Writing. And I love it. Well, I love it when I can silence my white privileged-woman entitled Margiela-boot-wearing guilt and my acute awareness that the world economy hardly needs more self-actualising prose, unlike, say, cheap water purifiers or a cure for autism.

And it just got harder to justify when even famous writers say these sorts of courses are a waste of time. Hanif Kureishi, an award-winning writer who ironically also lectures on an equivalent creative writing MA in the UK, last week said he wouldn't pay money to take one himself.

He said most students had no talent and you can't teach people how to write. And then, even if you have talent, it is a "nightmare" trying to make a living from the pen.

Last week the Independent's book editor Robert McCrum reported how since the global financial crisis even award-winning writers are having difficulty making ends meet. One of them had to move out of his rented office and build a garret on his house. (Sniff.)

So although I love it, I can also see how courses like this must be up there with interpretive dance to people who do "real" jobs. And I guess, despite paying fees, I am being subsidised indirectly by working class people who pay taxes so people like me can go to poetry readings.

Which is not to say that poetry readings are not adding to society. But still, it does look like hard work breaking up pavements.

If I were a road worker, I'm not sure I would be totally thrilled to hear there are 60,000 former scarfies overseas who have defaulted on their student loans, owing taxpayers $500 million. (Total outstanding overseas student debt is estimated at $3 billion.)

How impressed would that make you standing in the sun in your fluoro jacket for $15 an hour? They might have the last laugh, though. Being a writer probably pays marginally less than being a road worker.

- NZ Herald

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