I hate heights. Briefly, as a young man, I had no fear of them. I would happily get onto the roof, trailing cable from my valve radio and attach it to the TV aerial so I could pick up Radio Hauraki from Feilding in the daytime. The TV went out just as Dad was settling in after a hard day’s farming to watch the cricket. The screen just went dead. There might have been smoke. There would be no TV for anyone until the repairman came. The teenage me slipped outside, swiftly retrieved the cable and skulked off to my room to resume brooding about the terrible world full of terrible people.
By the time I was 25, I had escaped death in cars, on motorbikes, on mountains and in most of Wellington's public bars. My brain was as fully formed as it was ever going to get and I was no longer so bold; more conscious of what you could do to your neck if you came off a roof.
So here I am, decades later, spending the best days of this magnificent summer painting our high roof and, whenever I stop to reflect on what I'm doing, hating it. I am doing this because it very much needs to be painted and the days when you could just get some brave young guy to whip up there and get it done are gone.
This is a good thing, I have to concede. Those looser days are gone. Even though those high-living guys are naturals up there, modern safety practices are there for those moments when a natural loses his footing. You can’t say those moments don't happen.
Last time, last house, I found a painter in the classifieds. His name was Hussein. He was from Iraq, and you never met a more obliging guy. Sure, he could do it, he said, like it was the simplest thing in the world. Up he went, all over the roof, quick and agile as a monkey.
Once he got started, I realised that although he knew his way around a roof, his experience possibly came more from evading snipers than rolling on semi-gloss. But he was at home up there, and that made him the guy for the job. I went down to my office and he set about his work. In bare feet.
Everything was good for a couple of hours but then grey clouds begin to roll over and soon it was spitting a little. Under his bare feet, the old finish on the roof had deteriorated and had a dusty surface. Dots of rain began to fall making the surface even harder to work on.
“No trouble,” he said, “I keep working.” A few minutes later, I heard one hell of a crash. Hussein had come off the roof. Fortunately, there was a garden. Nothing broken, but he was thoroughly shaken. He went off to the doctor who said it was just bad bruising and he’d be fine, but he strongly recommended the patient stay off roofs. I thought to myself: that went a lot better than it might have.
As much as I admire the high-wire skills of those guys, I don't doubt that workplaces need to be safe. I also admire our ACC system that takes care of your personal injury by accident without asking who was to blame and tying everyone up in court for years. I also like that we have evolved a system, as we surely needed, to ensure that with ACC removing the jeopardy of your being sued for being unsafe, we have a system that ensures workplaces are safe. There is no more damning indictment of the consequences of putting revenue and profits above safety than the story told in Rebecca Macfie’s account of the Pike River disaster, Tragedy at Pike River Mine.
But here I stand on kitset scaffolding I bought from Trademe in order to get myself up high enough to paint the house myself. I don't especially like it, but it's not safe or right to ask someone to do it without proper protection. But - and at last we arrive at my point - have you seen the cost of getting your house bundled up in scaffolding these days? Have you heard how long you have to wait for it?
A market that doesn't seem to be functioning the way they taught us it would in high school economics has driven me up a wobbling metal tower. You talk about this and you hear a repeating complaint: I have to paint my house, but you can’t get a ladder up there, and have you seen the cost of scaffolding these days?
What this means, at least for now, is that a decent chunk of Auckland's property stock is not getting the maintenance it needs. Heaven only knows what will happen if those buildings begin to leak.
David Slack is an author, radio and TV commentator and speechwriter. He established the website speeches.com, and has published several books including ‘Bullshit, Backlash and Bleeding Hearts’, exploring Treaty of Waitangi issues, and ‘Bullrush’, a social history of the popular children’s game.