Thursday, August 05, 2010

Just Another Funloving Aucklander

[Matt Stenning: Auckland Skyline (2009)]

When I was a kid, my parents used to take us on camping trips all over New Zealand. One year it would be East Cape for a couple of weeks, the next Rotorua and the Lakes. On at least a couple of occasions we drove right around the South Island, which took us roughly three weeks. I'm not quite sure when it dawned on me that the place we came from was somehow different from the places we were visiting.

It was certainly nothing in those places themselves: dairies, playing fields, beaches. Everything seemed pretty normal to me. It was more in the attitude of the people we encountered. It became clear over time that it was exceedingly unwise to admit straight out that you came from Auckland.

Later, as I grew up, I began to encounter terms such as JAFA and Dorklander more and more often. Even when I went overseas as a graduate student, I still had to weather that automatic grimace or joke when answering that inevitable "Where are you from?" from a fellow Kiwi.

"Oh, Auckland, that's not New Zealand - that's a suburb of Sydney," was one bon mot I remember, from a silly young Wellingtonian ("You can talk," was the first riposte that sprang to mind, but I sensibly held my peace).

I wondered why the - very prosaic and ordinary - place I came from elicited such violent and extreme reactions. I still do. I suppose I began by assuming that it was just a bit of humorous joshing, that no-one could seriously imagine that a third of the population of New Zealand were somehow "different" - that merely crossing the Bombay Hills could create an insatiable appetite for latte, bohemian black, and other forms of pretentious trendiness.

There was a certain venom detectable behind it that seemed to preclude the "all in good fun" explanation. Even the most sensitive and cultured of my friends from other centres simply refused to drop the mask and admit that there was nothing particularly special about Auckland whenever I tried to raise the subject seriously.

It used to worry me a bit, I must confess. Like (I suspect) most Aucklanders abroad, I learned to apologise automatically for the place I came from. I would claim to hale from "north of Auckland" (the North Shore, in other words), or simply try to evade the question altogether.

Then, one day in Hamilton, I ran into an old university buddy wearing a T-shirt blazoned with the proud legend "Quite Frankly Auckland" (you understand that this was in the era of "Absolutely Positively Wellington"; "Yes, You Canterbury" - unfortunate double entendre there, I've always thought - and all those other regional mottos). "Auckland is for lovers" was the only other (mercifully short-lived) attempt I heard of to replace the more prosaic "City of Sails".

"How the hell do you get away with it?" I asked him. "Don't you find them waiting outside the pub at closing time to give you a kicking?"

"No, not at all. I had it made up when I moved here. No-one's ever mentioned it before, actually."

Mark's defiance heartened me. I stopped apologising for being from Auckland, stopped trying to blend in and look inoffensive whenever I headed south of the hills. In short, I came to terms with the fact that whatever problems other New Zealanders have with Aucklanders are their problems, not ours. I guess I was aided in this by the fact that my mother comes from Sydney, so growing up on a constant diet of anti-Australian jokes and badinage rather accustoms you to ignoring the silliness of it all.

It isn't just silly, of course. I'm still at a bit of a loss when I read news reports about children being sent home from school for wearing the wrong team colours (the school was in Christchurch, I believe, and the child in question's parents hailed from Dunedin). "All in good fun" once again, no doubt. I'm sure the child in question didn't mind too much missing a day of school. I doubt that he or she relished the atmosphere of hazing and ritual humiliation hanging over it all, though. Why not just burn a cross on their lawn and have done with it?

My mother did rather put it all in perspective for us one day when, after some particularly vituperative piece of anti-Australian raving from some semi-sentient sports commentator, we asked her how Australians felt about New Zealanders.

"They never think about them," she replied. "Until I came here I seriously doubt that I'd spent ten minutes of my life thinking about it. Of course I knew that New Zealand was there, but it just never came up."

There you have it. The root cause of irrational hatred is jealousy. New Zealanders find it difficult to bear that Australians so seldom talk about or even seem to notice them, when we ourselves just can't keep off the subject. The same would appear to apply to Auckland (fortunately to a somewhat lesser degree). Auckland too seems - at any rate for a New Zealand city - big, bewildering and appallingly self-sufficient.

It isn't that Aucklanders necessarily think more of themselves than other New Zealanders, but they do think a lot about themselves. The city is so diverse and huge that it takes some navigation. It's possible to live here all your life and never see large tracts of it. And, yes, this is more of the kind of lifestyle we associate with huge urban centres such as Sydney and Melbourne (giants though they are next to Auckland) than with the more culturally homogeneous and somehow more comprehensible other cities of New Zealand.

I think it was Hazlitt who remarked, "the smaller and more backward the hamlet, the more certain its inhabitants are that it is a pinnacle towards which civilization has been painfully struggling for generations." I think it might just be time for New Zealanders to grow up a bit and stop grousing so much about the evils of Australia (and Auckland, too, for that matter). Let's face it: they are really us. To the rest of the world, the fine distinctions we'd like to draw are largely invisible. There's a lot more to lose than there is to gain by clinging to silly provincial prejudices. Most of the population of Auckland was born elsewhere anyway, so how much logical sense can be attributed to this alleged "difference" anyway?

It may begin as a joke, but fomenting irrational hatreds does tend to end up by making them only too horribly real. So the history of Europe over the last century or so would suggest, at any rate. And the awful thing is that Aucklanders don't really, by and large, have any particular negative feelings about the rest of New Zealand at all. We just don't think about it. Those of us who like to travel tend to regard the whole kit and kaboodle as our own country. Why on earth would we want to restrict ourselves solely to the vistas we're used to at home?

[Jack Ross: Newmarket (2004)]

1 comment:

Rowan said...

Jack - a wonderful photo of our 'one track city'.

You're right - for a while I didn't like to ask people "where are you from?" - for fear of this kind of offensive banter.

For Maori, and indeed anybody, is this not an incredibly important question?

When asked, I usually try to be specific, and provincial - "I'm from Milford". If they're interested, I fill in the details.

Recently on a London building site I returned the question - the two fellows looked at each other - one replied, "He's from Rothsay Bay," his mate, "And he's from Mairangi Bay!" (A third piped up, "Macandrew Bay!".)

I think such particulars, like your 'one track town', push beyond ridicule or critique - but to many, these names must be meaningless.

Pupuke is my lake, Wairau my estuary, Rangitoto my mountain/volcanoe, Kashmere my Takeaway, and there's a Norfolk pine I like to sit beneath at the beach - and of course, my family live there, and have for generations.

For me, sharing a few small details helps to bring it all back home.