The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, April 13, 2008


TAKING A RISE OUT OF OZ Duncan Graham 2008

The first time I saw Wellington, her heart was wet and grey.

It was a Saturday morning about 25 plus years ago and I was in search of a paper. Nothing moved, except empties skittling across Jervois Quay, rolled by the rain, proof that this had been a bottleground the night before. Was anyone abroad – or were they all abroad? They were – this was summer.

How could the capital of a nation be so bleak? And sleazy? Every second shop should have been a cheerful dairy offering the dawn people a glass of fresh milk with a yellow cream top and a leg of Canterbury lamb just to get the day going before watching the All Blacks perform a haka on the beach. I knew all about NZ – I’d read the tourist promotions.

Back to The Terrace and a timber guesthouse that looked more like a wardrobe perched on the hillside. The tiny communal toilet was on another level, adding to the feeling of being in a place that time forgot.

It had; this was the Muldoon era and anything that wasn’t dour and drab was likely to be baton charged. If not grey you might be Red, maybe even anti-apartheid. Now you can’t even smack your kids for making racist comments.

Outside a line of Vauxhalls, Wolseleys, Zephyrs and other end of the alphabet models seen through smeared glass because the sash windows were stuck fast. As they were in 1880.

But the rain didn’t last and slowly the city came to life presenting dazzlingly clear vistas of the hills and harbor so good that finding a paper became unimportant. Houses roosting like gannets on the bush-clad slopes, a hundred hues of green.

Curious gateways and steps leading into the lush and the dank, full of mystery. Alice would have been enchanted. A city where almost every building had a magic entrance and knockout view could be forgiven for almost anything.

Back again, and it’s still tough getting a paper on some mornings and many stories need a glossary of Maori terms to understand. Back then it was all in English. But crime phobia remains with hyperventilating reports of burglaries and bashings that wouldn’t warrant a filler par in any Australian city.

Perversely this is comforting: If there’s no more shock-horror than a punch-up after the pubs close then things can’t be crook in Mount Cook. Or anywhere else between Ohariu and Owhira.

The era of the sunset home for Austin 7s has passed; today you need a thermoplastic coffin on the top of your Japanese discard people-mover, plus a slobbering Labrador (a Slobrador?) on the back seat panting for pats from passers-by to make a vehicle statement.

The suburban status symbol is now a rusting rubbish skip dumped across the pavement with an unpronounceable trade name best mouthed ‘Ouch!’ It’s the rich nob’s look-at-me tag, more obnoxious than graffiti, uglier than the Mongrel Mob. Not for these folk a pleb’s yellow plastic bag on the kerbside.

Reckon Wellington is going downhill? It will when the next megaquake rocks the faulty city, but in the meantime check your neighbour’s bin for throwouts as proof of opulence. We’ve scored a late model vacuum cleaner working perfectly (though the dust bag was half full), a garden table and enough timber to do some handy woodwork.

The usual cast of whingealots still gets excessive publicity. The latest articulate joycops were given freedom to bucket Te Papa on its tenth birthday, presumably because it lets in the unwashed who might think Jean Dubuffet is the coffee shop checkout chick.

Don’t these up-themselves culture snobs know what the town was like before this magnificent museum, theme park or South Pacific Disneyland was built? Have they ever been to big shows in Australia where superannuated military police patrol the exhibits and all the signs start with DON’T?

Te Papa has transformed the south end of the harbor and it’s consistently the best show in town as all the dads, mums and kids know, largely because it really wants you to come in, jandals no problem, look, photo, even touch. And free. It’s the same at the Museum of Wellington that shows history isn’t bunk, it’s entertainment better than any blockbuster.

On the Civic Centre over-way are the lovely lines of poet Lauris Edmond: 'It's true you can't live here by chance, you have to do and be, not simply watch or even describe. This is the city of action, the world headquarters of the verb.'

If true then Te Papa is the adverb: Welcome.

But that’s not the word Wellington gives to the cashed up from the cruise ships who come here to spend. Lucky liner layabouts, they can still experience the rough old days and sail past shunting yards, concrete overpasses in East German grey and cement silos to berth by a timber dump fumigated by noxious gasses. This is still a country dependent on primary industry, and if you don’t like it lady, then log-off. It’s surprising they haven’t installed pens for live sheep exports so visitors could get some really daggy photos.

The businessmen and bureaucrats in shorts that provided a lunchtime giggle have gone; I’m sure the women wore cloche hats. Now Lambton Quay has become Cleavage Central, whatever the weather. The promenaders take their cue from Kupe’s wife, Hine Te Aparaangi showing her splendid bosoms on the waterfront as she points to the CBD. Wellington in the 80s was blokeville. Now it’s the Women’s Republic as the fashion ads proclaim.

And not just in the city. On the gorse skyline big blondes flip their mountain bikes over taut wire fences with the ease of hanging washing on the line, then hurtle down Mount Kaukau’s twisted tracks studded with jagged greywacke to the applause of a cicada choir.

In the early 80s the other quaint sight was the trolley busses. Progressive cities elsewhere had long abandoned such dated transport. That Wellington hung on was proof it was primitive, laughable. Now electric transport is seen as clean, green and advanced. She who laughs last, laughs loudest.

What appeared to be the curse of Wellington – the lack of flat land for housing – has turned into a blessing, an architectural challenge producing imaginative suburbs, a marvelous creative contrast to the flat, boring terracotta-topped sameness that marks the Australian mortgage belt, particularly in cities like Perth where the Pavlova was invented.

Well that’s what all kids are taught in Oz history 101. Wellington claims otherwise and maybe that’s right. This is a city that’s taking a rise out of everywhere else.

(First published in The Dominion Post 12 April 2008)