Hard News by Russell Brown


Funky Seaside Village Revisited

A few days ago, someone asked me what I thought about republishing Funky Seaside Village, the personal essay I wrote for Metro magazine in 2001. I have always felt good about the essay -- it helped me crystalise many thoughts about who and where I was -- so I said sure, but I'm not re-typing it.

In short order, someone else did (feel free to let me know about any typos I've missed) and sent it to me. So here it is. It's about me, about the times, about New Zealand -- and about Auckland.


Metro January 2001

Funky Seaside Village – By Russell Brown

Far from being depressed by the way things are in his adopted city, Russell Brown argues that Auckland has never been more exciting.

There never really was a name for my generation. I was born in 1962, a year after Douglas Coupland, who wrote Generation X, but that was never me. And far from identifying with the Baby Boomers, I still have days when I blame them for everything.

However nameless, there’s something there. Many of my closest friends are aged a year or two either side of me. Almost unconsciously, we have converged.

Historically, we have in common that we always hit the platform just as the train was pulling away. I started school just as school milk was being phased out. I was young enough to be instructed in the national myths of wealth and health – and then to watch them unravel in the 1970s. I voted for the first time in 1981, just as the old national consensus had been broken apart by the Springbok tour.

We were never able to believe, as the Boomers seemed to, that the world was made for us. And yet, we have arrived. One of our own, born in 1962, is the chief executive of Telecom. In 1999, a 37-year-old was Minister of Finance. When my older son was learning to walk, I was on the dole – now I'm in the top five percent of income earners.

My peers and I faced our own set of questions last year when a few hundred New Zealanders of another generation lent their names to full-page newspaper ads declaring themselves in peril of the becoming the “Lost Generation”.

My first response was to be annoyed that these kids seemed to be so requiring of their country that they were withholding their attendance on demand of certain, unspecified favours. I’d left the country and come back – into the bona fide recession of 1991 – because I wanted to be part of the New Zealand story. There was no such ambition here.

As the stunt unfolded, there came the depressing realisation that it was really the Baby Boomers back again. Roger Kerr, pulling the strings, paying the bills. Paul Holmes, for whatever reason – ratings, realisation, simple ego – anointing himself as the apostle of the Great 2000 Confidence Crash.

What irked me was the witlessness of it all. The dim, earnest prose of Rich Poole’s original emails. The ease with which he let himself be caught lying about the provenance of the newspaper ads. The fact that his reward for running a chain letter and following the instructions of a PR company was an invitation to address the members of the Northern Club.

Kids these days grasp business in a way we never did, and I could name you a couple of dozen bright, enterprising twentysomethings who deserve the attention of Auckland’s grandees. Instead, they choose to hear from a high-born child of the eastern suburbs who, at the age of 27, is still working for his father.

Auckland has changed. Dizzingly, depressingly, dynamically. That change was in motion as I was preparing to depart at the beginning of 1986. Chase’s chintzy buildings were appearing. The bitter old alcoholics who staffed the city’s pubs were being turfed out as the premises were swept up for a new crowd.

And then I took my leave. Five years in London, while New Zealand convulsed half a world away. With no internet access and only the flimsy reporting of New Zealand News UK, I pretty much missed everything: the stockmarket cowboys, the crash, Lange’s cup of tea, the brief flowering of conspicuous consumption.

I’m glad of it. In eight general elections at home and abroad, I have never voted anything but Labour. In missing most of the fourth Labour government I was spared the resentment that seemed to dominate the political debate of the 1990s. The question of whether Lange sold out or wimped out is academic rather than visceral to me.

I’m not bothered about missing the Auckland of those five years either. My impression of it – the roaring boys of the Veranda Bar & Grill, the plump, glossy, smug Metro – is not favourable.

By 1991, the place seemed desolate. A new government, no jobs and not much fun. I ought to have found some modest employment, kept my head down and disappeared into suburbia. But my partner and I had it in our heads that this was a place where we could make our mark. We let an old friend talk us into helping take over a wobbly street mag called Planet, which had seen four different issues with four different printers.

We began so far on the financial back foot that the thing was never going to last, but in the three years that it did we were named by the National Library’s Working Tales exhibition as one of the “six books that will shape New Zealand”. Roger Douglas’s Unfinished Business was one of the others.

My keen but selective sense of history had us in a lineage that included Thursday, ChaCha and possibly even Cock. One of the most satisfying interviews I did for Planet was with Des Dubbelt, the venerable one-time editor of Playdate, New Zealand’s first pop and fashion magazine.

You have to remember, that at this time New Zealand was in the dread grip of the mainstream. Everything seemed to speak to and for the great middle-market blob and nothing spoke to us. We didn’t do any market research – we just assumed there was an audience like us. I like to think that, as well as creating the market in which the likes of Pavement prospered, we helped bring back the fringe.

Things are different now, Auckland is different now. So where exactly are we? Down the gurgler by some accounts.

One of the oddities of the coalition government’s rollercoaster ride this year is that just as it was coaxing the business sector out of its funk, the chattering classes got the pip.

The Listener, of all publications, has recently snarked at the government it wanted and got, raising the alarm over “culturisation” of Treaty issues and sneering at the Business to Government Forum. In the same magazine, Brian Edwards declared NZ to be irredeemably boring and repetitive, plagued by the same old faces, and implied that he’d leave if only he could be bothered. Thus speaks the man who moved to Waiheke Island.

Then there was an uncharacteristically bleak column by Bill Ralston in the November Metro in which he bemoaned “the chilly feeling of murky despair that rolled in about July and still has not cleared”. Ralston declared Labour electorally dead in Auckland, noting that “many affluent urban liberals did vote Labour and are now bitterly regretting it” because they pay more income tax. Apparently someone hid the dread secrets of Labour’s tax policy from them during the election campaign.

Ralston warned that the “surgical removal” of urban liberal spending power spelled economic doom for working folk. Just as city spending had never trickled down to the regions, the rural export windfall couldn’t “trickle up” to the big smoke.

Actually, it can and it must. Both capital and consumer spending by farmers inevitably routes money through Auckland. But that isn’t really the point. The point is that Auckland simply did not behave last year as a city fogged by “murky despair”. It was in fact twice the town for going out that was in 1999.

Drive down Karangahape Rd at 3am this weekend. It will be thronged with people entering, leaving and queuing outside a dozen clubs and bars. Down on Queen Street the decaying St James complex has been converted into a club that will, on a good night, pull 2500 people. The week before Rich Poole ran his mopey advertisement (and on a Thursday night!), 4500 young people felt sufficiently chirpy – and wealthy – to fork out $80 for Gatecrasher at the Aotea Centre.

Some establishments struggled through the winter, certainly. But given the city’s vast overcapacity, the wonder is that so many are still in business. And when Leo Molloy can punt on a formula Irish pub and have it overflowing every Friday; it is difficult to argue the Viaduct is dead.

Anybody who travels will know that a decent Auckland restaurant will offer you twice the satisfaction for a third of the price of one in London. Anyone who has been to Los Angeles and been presented with the hopeless lolly-water the Californians call wine will know the drink here is plain good. And anyone who has been anywhere else will know how hard it is to get an acceptable coffee. It truly has fallen to us to be the world’s coffee Nazis.

My friend who went over to London a couple of months before me (I camped on the floor of his bedsit for longer than I ought to have) has just come back for good, after 14 years. He is nervous about leaving behind the grand money he earned managing web development teams, and I can only tell him that money isn’t everything.

I have a lifestyle I could never have in London. I am salaried, but my home in Point Chevalier is my place of work. I have some of the fastest and cheapest internet service in the world. In summer, the beach is two minutes away. Queen Street is five minutes drive.

Even though I am a responsible, property-owing citizen, I still go out. More than ever, in fact, because there simply seems to be more on and because it beats watching TV. One week, a big game at Eden Park, the next the comfort of the King’s Arms, the next perhaps a dip into the clubby, huggy world of the dance scene which has almost taken over the city.

The main impediment to after-hours activities is that the place goes so damn late. When I was a lad, you could catch a band at the Windsor Castle and be home in time for the late news. These days, a night out clubbing means finding yourself at Feel at 5am – and, with my age and workload, a week’s worth of rest and multi-vitamins to follow.

The kids who trip all sparkly-eyed down K’ Rd don’t even get their coats on until midnight. Maybe they’re propped up on speed or E but at least they’re not ending their nights vomiting through their noses, fighting or in a police cell. I watch them and I find myself liking them. And yes, I like my funky seaside village.

One of the oddities of this year’s obsession with business confidence is that those two words together have probably been an oxymoron for the past decade. An emphasis on cost-cutting has created a strikingly competitive domestic economy, but New Zealand’s corporate and financial sectors are paying now for being so risk averse for so long.

Telecom encapsulates the issue nicely. While it delivered a return on equity exceeded only by Hong Kong Telecom, Telecom NZ let its capital spending fall below the rate of depreciation. While it functioned as a kind of corporate welfare scheme for its large American shareholders, its attempts at growth into Australia were half-hearted and inept.

Now, my generation – in the form of Teresa Gattung – is faced with trying to engineer the kind of growth that should have been pursued five years ago. The fat has consequently come off the dividends and the share price has gone south. This might take a while to fix.

New Zealand’s reluctance to hail their business leaders as heroes is commonly held up as a reason for our failure to perform economically. Some of those leaders – Sir Gil Simpson, Sir Angus Tait, Stephen Tindall – should indeed be held up as heroes. Their business and community lives ought to be aspired to.

But look elsewhere in the collegial group that dominates directorship in New Zealand and you will find all too few brilliant business ideas or great strides forward in the productive sector.

If we look for enduring symbols of the era when the shackles came off we find, rather sadly, a tax dodge (imagine if the ingenuity that went into the Winebox transactions had gone into product development) and a merchant bank that didn’t look after its shareholders very well. If Fay and Richwhite are to be our heroes, small wonder that we struggle to aspire.

While business lobby groups gnashed and wailed about relatively modest adjustments to workplace legislation this year, some sectors of the economy were just getting on with it. Any internet development firm worth its salt, for example, has been merrily, and profitably, exporting this year.

Funky little design firms will not replace our primary export industries but they are important to cities like Auckland and Wellington because they enhance the atmosphere and lend a sense of happening much in the way the funky little shops, clubs and restaurants do. And because they give talent a reason to stick around.

The talent is interesting. The kids working in the new economy are the same kind of kids who, 10 or 20 years ago, were picking up guitars. Now, they have the chance to work for WebMedia, Shift, ClickSuite or Inkspot Digital and create for the world stage. The top candidates in the bunfight that is graduation day for the design course at Wanganui Polytech can expect to be offered a starting salary of around $80,000. As the Prime Minister declared (in a speech she wrote herself) at the E-Commerce Summit, web design is “crossing the boundaries between technology and art”. The creative professions have never been so lucrative and so relevant.

Forgive me if I dwell on music, but culturally speaking, my crowd is the punk rock generation: fortunate enough to graduate as adolescents just as music got good again, and before the global culture industry leveled it all out.

I was deputy editor of Rip it Up just as a bunch of people my age put out timeless music on Flying Nun Records. My friends and I fixed our bonds in the joyous noise of the pubs of Auckland and the clubs of London. Watching the Verlaines at the Windsor Castle, on the dancefloor at The Trip in 1988; those were exultant moments. I fret that the kind of OE that shaped my peers and me is now in danger of being lost. Student loan debt and professional opportunity have conspired to kill it. The years I spent on my own cognisance in London – living in council squats, working in record shops, taking risks – define me still. Bugger The Forum, I went to Glastonbury.

I wasn’t born or bred here but I am an Aucklander. I envy the natives their family boltholes in the Coromandel, I still feel distant from the establishment, but I grant the possibility I am part of the new establishment. I am, I suppose, an inner Westie. I will countenance venturing east of Newmarket to seek medical attention, but that’s it. I am in Wellington more than I am in Howick.

If I am any kind of Aucklander, it is a bFM listener. My involvement with that radio station has been a constant and a pleasure in my recent life. There are many larger and richer cities with nothing like it.

Few cities of a million souls posses the creative vitality of Auckland. The Southside brown kids who were brightening the city in 1991 have matured. I’m thinking of the Fuemana brothers, Ermehn’s compelling hip-hop testament Samoans Part II and those Wellington imports King Kapisi and D.L.T, who at their best simply lead their chosen form.

Nationwide, a posse of workday rock bands – Tadpole, Fur Patrol, Weta, Breathe – are displacing their overseas counterparts on commercial radio, bringing the ration of local content of stations like Channel Z up to the nearly 25 per cent, without a quota.

That’s nice, but I prefer Kog Transmissions, an electronic counterculture collective from Kingsland that releases more records than all the majors put together, and which already has a beach-head in Europe. What Kog has in common with the Flying Nun of yore is not just that it has caught a cultural wave, but that most of its many acts – Pitch Black, Subware, Epsilon Blue – seem to take inspiration from the land and the space around them. As Mike Hodgson of Pitch Black puts it, no nightclub in Auckland is ever very far from the beach.

In the years I was away from New Zealand, the hurtling drone of The Clean’s 'Point That Thing Somewhere Else' was the music in my head, like a snapshot of the land. I saw The Clean recently at The King’s Arms. It still works, they’re still great.

I don’t believe in a past of endless golden weather. New Zealand before 1984 was moribund. It had to change. It is in many respects a better – and certainly a more open – country than it ever was. But is it a happy one?

For a while last year Kevin Roberts was giving a speech in which he urged us all to shake off the “dark, brooding, gothic streak that runs through our national psyche”. He then, bizarrely, went on to laud Colin McCahon and declared that Janet Frame “has big ideas”, making her sound like a property developer.

The truth is, you take away our moodiness and you take away a part of us. We live on moody land and if we understood that better we might understand why we are not Australians or Americans and just get on with it.

Confidence comes and goes, the All Blacks wax and wane, but we are never without McCahon, Frame, Lye and Baxter. That seems to mean more to me as I get older. The last time I stood in the front of a McCahon painting, tears welled in my eyes.

I recharge on all this every year at the APRA Silver Scroll Awards, which the saintly Mike Chunn has worked into a kind of annual revival meeting. To borrow bFM’s catchphrase, other awards are shit.

This year’s Silver Scroll’s was particularly good. Chris Knox, the old square peg, won with the beautiful “My Only Friend” whose gorgeous video may one day be screened on TV. He got to the stage sheepish but pleased and took a moment of his time there to thank me for Hard News, the weekly rant on bFM that I have done most Fridays for nine years. I felt like part of the story. And I cried.

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