Hard News by Russell Brown

Days in the sunshine capital

Get a few locals on the turps in Nelson and they will tell you that wages there are too low, relative to living costs; local government lacks vision; and the city is missing a cultural heart. But it's still a great place to live, and that is why they stay.

The idea that Nelson could do with a rock star mayor to raise its game is not altogether new. Even more than other regional centres, Nelson has established its own, to some extent global, character, through tourism, wine and the settling of the wealthy. The impression is that it needs to be a bit more purposeful in growing into that identity.

The trouble is, of course, that you can think you're getting Tim Shadbolt and wake up the next day to find you've got Michael Laws. Imagine that.

The experience of the World of Wearable Art franchise is instructive. The women who started it copped a furious local backlash when they announced that they had been wooed to a new base in Wellington. One of them had a load of shit dumped at her front doorstep. This is understandable in the sense that the locals who bought into the concept at the beginning will feel let down.

But the organisers seem to have faced a choice between moving onwards - with the active support of Wellington City Council - or curbing their aspirations at home. WOW could easily become a Cirque du Soleil-style roadshow, launching each season at home. Had local government made a better investment in it, it could have been a travelling advertisement for Nelson.

The mayors of neither Nelson or Tasman District turned up on Wednesday night for the live recording of Outspoken and Off the Wire last week, as part of National Radio's 101FM rollout, although 300-odd listeners did. (Both cited a 4pm engagement with visitors from their sister city, Eureka, California.)

I have, with my comedy news hat on (you should see it, it's a lovely hat), been part of Off the Wire panels in several places, and it has consistently worked better where local leaders have embraced the chance to have the national broadcaster come to town. In Christchurch, a cast of local notables turned up, hooked into the wine and got hugely engaged in both the Outspoken debate on local issues and our bit afterwards. One woman was so engaged we had to wait for her to stop laughing before we could start recording. Napier was a good little event too.

The Nelson recording took place at the Nelson School of Music, a really nice venue with a pipe organ and the most daunting stage access for a disabled performer I think I've ever seen. The manager breezily said to Mike Loder that it had been that way for years and this was the first time it had been a problem. Mike's response was terse.

But people were friendly - as they are everywhere in Nelson, except perhaps in hospitality - and the show went quite well. I was particularly impressed with Matt Lawrey, the young morning host of the local independent radio station, Fresh FM. He's a former community newspaper journalist and a clever chap, and the station seems to offer an intelligent alternative to the tide of networked formula radio that is increasingly the lot of the regions.

(Matt also clearly knew where the local audience's funny bone was, while I, on the other hand, discovered that blogging jokes don't really play in Nelson.)

After the show and a meal, several of us headed down to Bridge Street, the entertainment precinct, where Fat Freddy's Drop were playing. It was rammed, and the band just amaze me every time I see them. What I like is the way a subtle shift in one of their long jams takes the tune - and an attentive crowd - on a whole new trajectory. They're a national treasure already.

I had enough time - just - the next morning to discover Q Books in Hardy Street and leave with an armful of the sort of curious stuff that I go to secondhand bookshops for. I was particularly pleased with Deviant Behaviour: New Zealand Studies, which includes the full text of the 1955 British Journal of Psychology paper on the Parker-Hume murders, which is a great read (as in, jeez, this'd make a good movie). Also, Computer Culture: The information revolution in New Zealand, written in 1985 by Waikato University's Colin Beardon, who I must get hold of some time soon. I signed the visitor's book and ran for the taxi.

Nelson wasn't all good. It's easy to go to a restaurant and pay $25 for a plate you could get for $22 on Ponsonby Road. The long black at Morrison gallery café was thin, too hot and essentially not what you'd expect from the local café of the year. One of the Downlow lads (our producers for Off the Wire) bought a couple of vodka and sodas at Phat and I swear they were contenders for the worst drinks I've ever tasted. I paid $15.80 for two pints of beer at the Victorian Rose. The Downlow lads found the manager of their "motor lodge" (converted office building) angrily trying to charge them an extra night's accommodation after they left their packed backs in their room for a whole 20 minutes after checkout time. That seemed a bit unnecessary.

And yet, as we cast our parting glances along Tahunanui Beach on the way out, I didn't want to go. The day before, I had wandered long and quiet down the same beach at low tide, paddling in the warm water while little fish scooted about. That was great, and so is Nelson. You just get the feeling it owes itself a little more.

On Saturday, I partook of the hospitality of Fairfax New Zealand at Eden Park, along with several other journalists. The Fairfax brass bought us drinks and regaled us with rude stories about APN, and it was nice enough. It would have been better had the Black Caps' confidence not taken another shredding from the Australians. To witness Daryl Tuffey's 14-ball opening over was to see a grown man fall to pieces in front of 20,000 people. In both innings, the New Zealanders got to a position where the might have had the winning of it, and both times the Aussies put the hammer down. I think they've got us spooked.

On Sunday, I got on my bike and popped down to Western Springs for the Live at the Springs tsunami benefit, catching Pluto, the D4 and Che Fu before I had to go. Thousands of people were there by then, and the event was looking like a real credit to the organiser, Patrick Fife, and his team. It was particularly pleasing to see so many families in attendance.

Two observations: (1) Asian Aucklanders - whethere short-term or permanent - are integrating more these days. It's not uncommon to see groups of Asian kids, often with a European friend or two, out at events now. And (2) Auckland has more blondes than nature originally allocated.

So, onwards. I have too much work and no childcare to allow me to take up an invitation to the Variety Club's annual Oscars long lunch, which is a shame. But I'm in Wellington later this week, again with Off the Wire, and I expect there'll be some fun to be had there.

Just finally, I liked Saturday's editorial in the Weekend Herald, which surveyed this year's Halberg Awards:

There is no weakening of national spirit in these confident, well-travelled world champions. They wear their representative pride with fun, rather than the solemnity of old, and it seems stronger for it. Again, it is the much-maligned school system that probably can take a bow.

For a generation now, primary schools in particular have put a great deal of effort into giving children the confidence and ability to express themselves to an audience. They probably did not set out to correct a deficiency in the national character but if they did, it was social engineering of the best kind.

At the same time, they have instilled the best elements of national pride, giving younger New Zealanders the ability to enjoy the Maori dimension of the country as well.

This kind of credit is too rarely extended these days, amid our panic about NCEA and the familiar tedious bullshitting about political correctness. New Zealand schools set goals and achieve results of a nature they hardly even thought about two or three decades ago. The kids are alright, and it does us good occasionally to say so.