I don’t wanna stay home tonight / I look out the windows and see the bright lights

I like Auck­land a lot. That’s the first thing that hits me when­ev­er I return. I can be as cyn­i­cal as I like, and I find myself suc­cumb­ing to cyn­i­cism a lit­tle too often these days, but I’ll nev­er for­get that feel­ing as I flew back to New Zealand on my first extend­ed (almost 3 years) time away from home back in 1985.

As we cir­cled above the Manukau Heads, I felt a huge swell, and, yes, some tears. Twen­ty three years lat­er and god knows how many cir­cles above those Heads, I still get it, although with­out the tears these days. It’s my nest and it’s the city I know bet­ter than any in the world.

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Then, this time too, was a lit­tle more: my Dad was 80 (that’s not him above BTW) and my sis­ter had hit 50, and the mass gath­er­ing that implied added just a lit­tle bit more emo­tion to the land­ing.

And my best bud­dy Peter (that is him above BTW) was doing his last show on George FM – a gig that I played a big part in get­ting him 7 years back.

A lot of the time, despite the incred­i­ble and won­der­ful­ly exot­ic places I find myself fair­ly reg­u­lar­ly these recent years, I ready do miss it, and the peo­ple who live there.

Over the past half-decade though my vis­its have become less and less fre­quent, dis­tance, time and finances being what they are. When I first moved off­shore I was back there every three months or so but the gap between trips this year has been some eleven months, so, for the first time I feel less a res­i­dent off­shore than a vis­it­ing alien in very famil­iar and warm sur­round­ings.

But famil­iar they are, and the one thing that came back to me time and time again these last two weeks is that Auck­land has changed lit­tle in real terms over the past 40 or so years. Sure it has more peo­ple, and of a slight­ly wider mix (although not much), it’s got bet­ter food and cof­fee, a pleas­ant and sophis­ti­cat­ed wine cul­ture, but for all that it remains a mid­dle size rather grey and mediocre city set in an incred­i­ble land­scape the equal of any city in the world.

But it’s a city with flash­es of extreme bril­liance and pock­ets of quite astound­ing peo­ple doing rather won­der­ful things, and even the best efforts of the Auck­land City Coun­cil, which has worked tire­less­ly for gen­er­a­tions to destroy much of the city’s soul, have been unable to take it’s nat­ur­al beau­ty away, although incom­pe­tent (and cor­rupt) city plan­ning over gen­er­a­tions have played their part in block­ing the vista for many of it’s inhab­i­tants.

Last time I was in the Auck­land, in late Jan­u­ary, 2008, I scrib­bled down a few off the cuff thoughts and it feels appro­pri­ate, if only for my own ref­er­ence rather than any attempt to pro­vide a trav­el­ogue or make any defin­i­tive state­ments, to do the same again.

This trip was, for me at least, over­shad­owed by the near death (in that he was hit by a bus and was very lucky to survive.…I think get­ting a bash from a link bus qual­i­fies as a near death expe­ri­ence) of one of my best mates a cou­ple of weeks before I arrived. Hap­pi­ly Tom looks like­ly to be home in a week or three and was lucky enough to avoid any long term head or dis­abling phys­i­cal injuries. How­ev­er the acci­dent drove home what an incred­i­ble thing the New Zealand health sys­tem is, when put up against almost any coun­try in the world, and for that mat­ter, what pret­ty good shape Labour left it, and many oth­er cor­ner­stones of the nation in. For a nation of 4 mil­lion to have the sort of main­tained infra­struc­ture like that is noth­ing less that astound­ing.

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But New Zealan­ders love to whinge. I guess it was anoth­er thing, like our laws and the West­min­ster sys­tem, that the British passed on to us. And whinge they do.

I thor­ough­ly was tak­en aback by the lev­el of nation­al neg­a­tiv­i­ty. Yes, we all know there is an inter­na­tion­al eco­nom­ic cri­sis, but New Zealan­ders are rev­el­ing in it. Every­where they groan, but the roads are full of BMWs and the nat­ty new (over­priced – I know what they sell for in Asia) motor scoot­ers. The media is full of it, with TV polls ask­ing ‘are you wor­ried about los­ing your job?’ Gosh, how to load a ques­tion to pro­duce a hap­pi­ly neg­a­tive result (40% were wor­ried BTW).

And you have to con­clude that the nation talked to itself into a change of gov­ern­ment for no good rea­son beyond the fact that they talked them­selves into a nation­al malaise. Two peo­ple told me they’d vot­ed Nation­al but now couldn’t real­ly work out why since it was increas­ing­ly clear that the new lot had less idea than the old lot, and rather less expe­ri­ence. But for all that I encoun­tered a fair smat­ter­ing of the vile ‘les­bian’ slurs so beloved of the intel­lec­tu­al­ly bank­rupt. They think they sound so fuck­ing clever but it’s the moment I walk away from any con­ver­sa­tion. Sad­ly there was a bit of it at our fam­i­ly func­tions from peo­ple I though would know bet­ter. It’s a pret­ty sad indict­ment of the nation­al (with a big N and a small n) con­ver­sa­tion.

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I loved the music. Auck­land is full of it and the city is as musi­cal­ly curi­ous and inno­v­a­tive as it’s ever been. For a coun­try as small as NZ to cov­er such a range and for music stores to both stock and quite clear­ly sell so much music from the edge is some­thing to be proud of. And, hell, Bil­ly T. James had the num­ber one sell­ing album over the Xmas peri­od. He may be dead but he’s my kind of come­di­an, and his TV show is still much missed after all these years.

In fact, per­haps it’s my mem­o­ry but TV is much missed in NZ, full stop. There may be 2000 chan­nels on the air but, god, it’s tru­ly awful. Maybe the good stuff was wound back for the break but the state of both pub­lic and pri­vate broad­cast­ing was gri­mace induc­ing and you won­der what a vis­i­tor must think when they turn on the box in the hotel room as we did. It all looks a bit like it’s just off the farm.

I love the qui­et. Auck­lan­ders love to think they are a busy cos­mopoli­tan city. Hap­pi­ly such is not real­ly true. The much vaunt­ed Auck­land traf­fic is, by any rea­son­able inter­na­tion­al stan­dard, pret­ty light, even in the work peak times (we arrived a week before most peo­ple went on hol­i­day). It moves. Be glad. Big sweep­ing roads full of not very much and dri­vers who are so bloody polite. Yes, I know Auck­lan­ders will tell me that it’s the exact oppo­site, but it ain’t.

I went to the ‘mega mall’ at Sylvia Park a cou­ple of days before Christ­mas. It was sub­stan­tial­ly qui­eter than a nor­mal Sat­ur­day night in Kuala Lumpur and com­par­a­tive­ly desert­ed when put next to a nor­mal week day in Orchard Road or Cause­way Bay. Once again, be glad. I know I was. Auck­land might not have the same range of high end shop­ping you find in larg­er over­seas cen­tres but it’s often more pleas­ant to shop in and the low key-ness allows a broad­er range of edgi­er out­lets. I’d rather have a Strange­ly Nor­mal or a Karen Walk­er than a Guc­ci or Pra­da on every cor­ner (although the option is nice). I’ve walked the streets of Sin­ga­pore and Hong Kong look­ing for inter­est­ing menswear but still my shirts are made by Claire and Michael in Avon­dale.jim.jpg

There were a cou­ple of things that I’d add as a pro­vi­so to that though. First­ly, what hap­pened to retail design? Most shops look like they were designed in the mid 1990s. We wan­dered through the much vaunt­ed Nuffield Street and gri­maced at the likes of Trelise Coop­er Kids – oh dear – it won awards appar­ent­ly with it’s odd dis­play units and it’s, how-many-times-have-you-seen-it-before glass floor.

Sec­ond­ly, for all the range of music, where are the books and mag­a­zines? Do Auck­lan­ders not read any­more? The book­shops are half emp­ty and the mag shops’ shelves are ridicu­lous­ly sparse. Maybe I’ve just become used to the book­shops of Asia, but I don’t remem­ber it being like that before I left. I wan­dered around with a cou­ple of Xmas book vouch­ers and left Auck­land with both in my bag still. Maybe Ama­zon killed it. I dun­no but even Uni­ty was a bit ‘oh, that’s it?’.

I was pleas­ant­ly sur­prised by how inex­pen­sive Auck­land has become. Whilst the rest of the world has rock­et­ed ahead, lots in Auck­land remains fair­ly rea­son­able. There seems to have been a read­just­ment of sorts and things like cof­fee, eat­ing out, and trans­port are, by world terms, a bar­gain. It’s a shame hous­ing is such sil­ly expen­sive, even with the down­ward slip in recent months. Elec­tron­ics though, are nuts. A cam­era or phone or com­put­er can be twice the price you’ll find the same thing in Asia. A stand­alone hard­drive I paid about NZ$120 for in Hong Kong was over $300 at JB Hi-Fi, and a Canon lens worth $380 in HK was $988 in Queen Street.

The build­ings – the archi­tec­ture – seems to have gone the same way as shop design. Per­haps it always was this shock­ing or per­haps I’m just see­ing it now with dif­fer­ent eyes, but can some­one raze most of Nel­son, Symonds, Hob­son and large parts of Queen and K Rds and start again. Can some­one point me in the direc­tion of an inter­est­ing new build­ing that’s gone up in the past 5 years? The har­bour and many of the ‘burbs are quite gor­geous, the city and its inner sur­round­ings are a mon­stros­i­ty.

And final­ly, the food. I’ve said it in the past, the high end food in Auck­land sim­ply isn’t that good. We get tak­en or take our­selves every now and then to the places around the har­bour and the likes of Dine in SkyC­i­ty, but they’re bland places with over­priced bad­ly craft­ed and dat­ed food sold with a ‘name’ chef tagged onto it.

But move away from that and one of the over­whelm­ing expe­ri­ences of Auck­land for me is always the food, and find­ing the time to fit the places we wan­na go in. So, I’m going to roll out of this post, hav­ing no doubt pissed a few peo­ple off, with a few places we need to go to when in Auck­land:

Grand Har­bour: not for the evenings but the Dim Sim which is fresh­er, less fat­ty and bet­ter tast­ing than any­where else in Auck­land, and, for that mat­ter, most of Asia includ­ing Hong Kong.

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Mekong Neua: there’s a place in Bangkok called Vien­tiane that Brigid and I like, with North­ern Thai / South­ern Laot­ian dish­es and Mekong Neua is almost there. Four words: Gung Che Num Pa

KK Malaysian: the lit­tle hole in the wall in Green­lane (now with coor­di­nat­ed tables and chairs) that brings togeth­er the sort of things you need to trav­el to half a dozen places in KL to find. We used to do this place once a week which played hav­oc with my belts.

Lit­tle India: yep, it’s a chain but it’s the best Indi­an food in Auck­land and as good as any­thing you’d find in Singapore’s Lit­tle India. And they under­stand the mean­ing of hot.

The Bel­gian Beer Bars: Which have done what the Auck­land City Coun­cil failed at, and pre­served a few build­ings. The one in Vul­can Lane per­forms exact­ly the func­tion it was built for in the 1880s with­out destroy­ing the build­ing. We go for the green lipped NZ mus­sels – which only taste as they do in NZ.

El Buc­co: the short shots of hot choco­late with a slice of Johnny’s var­i­ous piz­za.

Prego: Prego is Pon­son­by and it’s been a local for years. So much so that we arrived in Auck­land and we went almost direct­ly from the air­port, paus­ing to hug the par­ents and drop off a bag or two, pick up a car, to a birth­day par­ty at Prego. I have always ordered the Capris­osca piz­za, tak­en off the arti­chokes, and added chili oil.

I won­der how many of those I’ve had over the decades…..

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