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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…..