Random Play by Graham Reid


Auckland: The past is present

I just caught a glimpse of him out of the corner of my eye when I heard him shout “Why don’t you keep quiet”. Or words to that effect, with unprintable expletives included.

He was dressed in a lawyer’s suit, had close-cropped hair, had those mad staring eyes like Chris Dickson, and was wound tight as a drum. His fists were tight balls and for the life of me I thought only the thinnest veneer of Civilised Man and the people around us was keeping him from decking me.

Funny place Freyberg Square in central Auckland on a weekday lunchtime, huh?

Quite what I had done to offend his thin-skinned sensibilities I don’t know, unless you call reading a short story in public an offensive act these days. Jeez, this Auckland Writers and Readers Festival thing can be damned dangerous for the unsuspecting writer who has the temerity to get up and read in public.

For reasons I cannot fully explain -- being a middle child and only son perhaps? -- I have always been the one who tried to smooth troubled waters, find the middle path and generally pitch in when help is required. I’m certainly no saint, but I do seem to end up on more committees than I should, and if someone has an idea that sounds interesting I just jump in with scant regard to whether it’s a good career move, of interest to anyone other than me, or even moderately dangerous.

Which is why I was in Freyberg Square today reading one of my short stories (previously published in Metro) to the lunchtime crowd of maybe a couple of dozen unsuspecting citizens -- and one very angry man crossing the square who came within a metre to rain red-faced abuse on me as I ignored him.

A few weeks ago at a meeting of the Society of Authors we were asked if any of us would be willing to do some public readings to get interest up in the Festival -- which officially opens on Thursday night. No one seemed especially willing -- Famous Writers and Well Known Authors don’t do this kind of public-humiliation thing, I guess -- but I jumped in and said, “Why not?”

Other than hosting a panel discussion of travel writers on Sunday (Aotea Centre 4pm, panellists are Pico Iyer, Ian Robinson, Jo and Gareth Morgan, and Eleanor Meecham) I am not involved in this year’s festival. But of course as one who writes and reads I wanted to get in behind it.

Which is why there I was with a head-mike on Monday and Tuesday joking that I knew what those lunchtime chompers were thinking: the long hair, the head-mike -- you think I’m Britney Spears right? But no, the hair is my own, and this isn’t lip-synching.

Ice-breakers like that get a laugh, and it did.

Because the topic is Auckland (in the most general of terms) on Monday I read from Decently And In Order, the big, boring and seldom-read book by GWA Bush published in ‘71 about the history of the Auckland City Council.

Yep, a real crowd-pleaser, right? Well actually . . .

By dipping and diving with discretion I came up with passages that I think are fascinating. As the French say, “the more things change . . .”

Some sample quotes about my city which I read to an initially bewildered then bemused gathering of sandwich eaters on Monday then?

From 1848: “Let the veriest stranger [gaze] upon shapeless streets, torturous alleys, and huddled by-lanes exhaling their ‘fragrance’ to the sky, let him declare whether the most painstaking ingenuity has not been displayed in making the utmost of every inch of space, wedging the embryo city . . . into as close column as most grinding condenser could desire.”

And this from the same period: “Look only at Queen Street, that regal paragon of miry ways; -- extend a glance up the bogs of its minor appendage, West Queen-street; -- consider the almost impracticable banks of Shortland-street; -- and without diverging into that filthiest yet busiest of the haunts of men, High-street -- proceed onwards towards Princes-street -- even there . . . this really noble thoroughfare will soon be worn into ruts and ruin.”

From 20 years later: “The warmest admirers of Auckland . . . are yet obliged to confess that the city itself is not a model of cleanliness, that its principal thoroughfares are unmade or in disrepair . . .”

That got a laugh out of those who had walked up from the battleground that is Queen St on the remake/remodel.

From the 1920s here is a comment likely to warm the prejudices of those in the provinces: “The number of shabbily dressed people, and ragged, apparently uncared for, children, is much greater than in Dunedin, and many of the streets bear the stamp of poverty and want upon them.”

There was much more down the decades that was wearily familiar: a debate about the planting of trees, the need for a viable public transport system . . . and of course traffic. In the 50s people were saying “the city is being swallowed by the motor car” and that “Wellington fails to understand [Auckland’s] bigness”.

My favourite comments came from writers: this is Maurice Shadbolt in the 50s: “Auckland has never pretended to be anything other than itself, a frontier town grown haphazardly into a city on a humid isthmus . . . . [it] is still philistine and commercial, vulgar and brassy. But vulgarity and brassiness are surely symptoms of an urban vitality.”

The voice of the good keen man, Barry Crump, also weighed in: “Auckland fails to provide itself with a real city atmosphere. Although it has all the ingredients of a city, the citiness is swamped in a great surrounding area of suburbanism.”

My favourite quotes however came from JC Reid, no relation, who wrote in the 50s: “[Auckland has] a passionate addiction to money-grubbing. It is materialist-minded, overloud, contradictory. Its people work hard and play hard. It is the most cosmopolitan of New Zealand cities in both composition and outlook.”

And finally this from him: “Modern Auckland is a perky gold-digger, over-talkative but full of ideas, mildly interested in the arts and much in love with life. She’s very good company.”

Strange how much of this remains true, and I shall be back in Freyberg Square on Thursday lunchtime essaying this idea again, and again on Friday reading that short story about two very different Aucklands (which some people applauded after, to my surprise and delight.)

I don’t actually enjoy submitting myself to public indifference or abuse, but it does have its pay-offs. If I hadn’t jumped in as I am wont I never would have dug through Decently And In Order to get this historic overview of my city, and to be reassured that our present problems aren‘t new.

I can’t find a quote about irrationally angry and abusive dickheads in suits however.

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