There is a thing I call the Cuban Meander: start anywhere in Wellington’s Cuba St quarter and wander around, dropping into any shops or cafes which take your fancy.
Or stare at the Bucket Fountain and wonder if it is taking kitsch a bit too far.
The Cuban Meander was something I started doing, in true exploratory and unfocussed form, in 1982: The Southern Cross, just off the top of Cuba in Abel Smith St, was the unofficial Wellington Polytech pub and it used to be the place to meet in the evenings for the journalism course I was on.
Technically I shouldn’t have been there at all: the drinking age was still 20 and I was, at the start of the year, a very green and young looking 17.
The pub owner was blessed with some admirable and commercially astute powers of tactical myopia when it came to pouring beers for people whose faces were apparently held together by acne. The age issue only came up when his hand was forced or when he simply wanted to get rid of someone.
Mind you, one member of the journalism course did rather force the issue when he applied for a part time job behind the bar there: you had to be 20 to work in a pub as well and he assured the owner he was of age despite looking about 15.
All went well for a week or so until they were discussing rugby: the lad was discussing his own abilities on the pitch and the owner asked him what level he played at.
“Oh, the under-19s…” began the soon-to-be ex-barman.
Anyway, it used to be my practice to have a beer or two on Thursday or Friday nights and then weave down Cuba St, popping in to the second hand book and rekkid stores as I went.
Few are still there: Slow Boat was, from memory, about two doors up from where it is now but it was much more gloomy and crammed, and certainly far less well organised. Pretty sure it had had different owners then.
The Ferrit Book store was – again, from memory – about where Olive Cafe now is.
I don’t know if Pegasus Books was in Cuba St then or not. I have an idea it may have been way down the bottom, over the road from James Smiths.
Anyway, they have survived.
Cuba Street is the place for things that survive, often against the odds and certainly against whatever the current trend is doing.
I’m hardly an ‘alternative’ type of character but I love these places: they are needed because any society needs its diversity, not as a slogan or a badge of moral superiority as that term tends to be used these days, but as a simple unaffected reality.
And as for my favourite type of shop – the secondhand book shop – they are havens and laid back, non-authoritarian schools. Second hand book shops will, I believe, be the last repositories of civilisation.
Ahh… One of those ‘moment’ songs. Straight out of school, straight out of the country, to Wellington Polytech journalism course. Walking down Devon St to Polytech and hearing this coming out of one of the student flats and thinking, that’s just how I feel….
I’m a Wellington convert. It’s not the first city I experienced – that was Auckland, which was the nearest big city to where I grew up – but it’s the first city I lived in when I left home at 17 to go to Polytech. It would be too much to say I fell in love with the place: fell in strong interest might be a better way of putting it. But when I got the chance to move back in 1995 I grabbed it with both hands.
My first conscious exposure to Wellington as a place was probably Close To Home, that fairly awful seventies attempt by New Zealand tv to produce a local Coronation Street. (It was so bad no-one has even Youtubed it.) There was a pan during the opening credits, probably filmed from the Shelley Bay road, of the houses on the Hataitai ridge, jammed along the hilltop like a row of ill-fitting teeth. It looked different to any other city I’d seen.
I’d been advised by the school careers advisory counsellor to apply for the Wellington course, rather than the much closer Auckland Institute of Technology course. In retrospect I don’t know why, but on such things lives are changed.
So in early Feb ’82 I boarded the Northerner at Pukekohe railway station with a couple of bags, a few goodbyes on the platform and a few butterflies in the stomach.
I am not sure if the next bit is rose-tinted retrospectivity, but I have a vivid mental picture of the train rushing and roaring through the tunnel at the bottom of the Ngauranaga Gorge and the city bursting on my forehead like a water bomb. It was that dramatic.
Very Wellington. When there has been a run of bad weather, Wellington can seem like a mist-enshrouded village at the bottom of the island, mordantly wrapped up in its own intrigues.
On good days, where the city throws off the manky duvet and seems to hum the chorus from Itchycoo Park…it is just fabulous. And this is one of the things about Wellington’s famous weather: it doesn’t muck about. Auckland weather tends to change every few hours, or at least it feels that way. Wellington weather is intense, one way or the other.
At the end of the first week I dutifully wrote my first letter home. Now, you have to remember I was a country boy, and a fairly young, green one at that. So I posted it the only way I’d known, in the letterbox at the front gate. The postie didn’t take it. Bloody slack mail service in the big city, I thought, and put it back the next morning.
After about the third day of collecting my outgoing letter along with the incoming mail, my landlady asked me what I thought I was doing, and explained that this was one thing they do differently in the big city.
Absorbed the city’s features, which to me involved absorbing a brandy and dry or two at the Southern Cross – in those days very much the Polytech pub – then weaving down Cuba St, browsing in the second hand bookstores – there were two where Olive Café now is – and Sylvio’s Second Hand Records and Tapes, where the café at the corner of Cuba and Garrett Streets now stands. There was also a good second-hand bookshop up the stairs.
Then waiting at the bus stop outside the Dixon St Deli, watching those friendly red buses pick their way through the rain.
Then there was the library. Now, the small town I was from had a library: it was about the same size as the Lido café. (It has since been improved, btw). So here was this magnificent old mansion of books, acres and acres of them. History politics and, to a less extent, economics drew me in. (at that stage I wasn’t really into novels).
On a bleak Wellington midwinter day, the old library building, with its cosy rooms and general smell of old books, carpet and raincoats, was a snug haven of knowledge. Yes, I know the new library building – its nearly 20 years old but it still seems new – has won architectural awards. It still doesn’t have the character of the old building.
Later, at Uni in Auckland, Wellington became a gateway to adventure. I got into the Auckland University Tramping Club, made some friends for life. You can’t beat spending a few days in the bush with someone as a way of finding out what they’re really like, particularly when things are going wrong. I remember a couple of trips, hitching down the North Island: one time getting here a day early (you allowed for two days hitching down) and sleeping under a tree in the Botanical Gardens.
(not the best places to bivvy, I was later told. Bowling Greens were the best bet if you didn’t want to be disturbed).
Somewhat later, back in journalism and writing about IT at Computerworld…. Auckland and I were never a good fit, and the chance came up to shift to the Wellington office. That’s me, I thought.
Wellingtonians talk about their city in a different way to Aucklanders. There’s a greater self-consciousness, which at times can be a bit much.
I’ve got to do a slight tangent here (something I hardly ever do)* and discuss the Auckland Problem. This is a complex issue, but boiled down to one sentence: the rest of the country, especially those in the South Island, have really got to get over Auckland. And Auckland has to get over itself.
One of those tramping trips I mentioned, this would have been in December 1994, virtually every time we stopped and people asked where we were from, and we’d say. ‘Auckland’ the answer would be ‘Won’t hold that against you’.
Now, the first time, this was mildly amusing. Almost. When you’ve heard it the 29th time that day, you just roll your eyes and grit your teeth.
Wellingtonians weren’t quite that bad….however just before I moved here some report had come out saying Auckland got more rain than Wellington. Which did not surprise me at all, but I got fed up with people pointing it out to me after I moved here.
Wellington does have a flavour of its own. Not long after I moved here, out on a run and doing something to occupy the mind, I made a mental list of all the people I knew in Auckland who I thought would suit Wellington. Mostly the artsy and bookish types, and funnily enough number of them have since moved here.
Other things: just the sheer ease of getting around the place. I now live not far from that row of ill-fitting teeth mentioned in the first paragraph and, more importantly, 10-15 minutes’ drive from the airport; eight minutes from the Hospital; 15 minutes from downtown.
Testimony from others: my brothers’ partner, on a visit from Auckland, looking out the window and musing, “in most places in Wellington you can look out the window and see something interesting happening”. An old Uni colleague, returning from the offshore financial markets, observing that although he and his family will end up in Auckland “Wellington is full of interesting, intelligent people”.
I can see myself living in other cities, but I can’t see myself actually liking it. That makes Wellington different.