Monday, August 26, 2013
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
UP BRASENOSE PLACE
A simple factual record of a walk in greater Wellington.
On a visit there recently, I asked my host if we could take a bush walk somewhere in the bush-clad hills that intrude on Tawa as they intrude on most of suburban Wellington.
“No problem”, he said, after consulting his computer to see what tracks were recommended.
We drove for about ten minutes from his domicile. We parked on a steep hill and plunged through a connecting walkway to the promised track. It was not much of a challenge – about fifteen minutes tramping up a green tube of overhanging fern and other foliage before emerging at a fence-line where the shaved and bush-less farmland began. There were “Keep Out” signs. Mine host hinted that there was some research facility over the next rise and intruders weren’t welcome. We tramped back down the fifteen minutes of track and back to the car.
Not my idea of a great outdoors experience, but one that presented me with an odd contradiction.
You couldn’t imagine a more typically New Zealand scene than the one I’ve just described – suburban New Zealand homes built in distinctively New Zealand styles bang up against native (if regenerated) New Zealand bush which in turn was bang up against a barbed-wire fence and hilly New Zealand farmland.
But what were the names of the streets in this section of suburbia?
Brasenose Place. Balliol Drive. St Benet’s Place. Peterhouse Street.
“Yer what?” I thought, at this verbal onslaught of Oxbridge.
The houses were obviously all post-1960s, so there is no way that this subdivision was made, and its streets named, in the first flush of colonialism when 19th century settlers from England may have chosen names from “Home” as the names of streets. Obviously the streets were named by whatever property-developing company had carved up the subdivision in the 1960s or later. So why all these twee and self-consciously English street names? My guess is that they were intended to imply class, exclusivity, something for the superior homeowner.
This naming of streets is a difficult matter (it isn’t just one of your holiday games). In the real colonial era the country was covered with Queen Streets and Prince’s Streets and other names of like stunning originality. In country regions, there were and are roads named after whichever farming family originally farmed locally. Most suburbs have streets named after battles and eminent local personalities (it’s depressing to discover how many of them were minor figures in the local council decades ago). Then there are the Maori names that have been preserved in street names, or sometimes fancifully applied to them.
But you can spot a subdivider’s cunning commercial plan whenever you see a set of street names that runs thematically.
In the East Auckland suburb of Howick (well, really the township east of Auckland, so far is it from the city centre), there is an old subdivision that was obviously named by a subdivider who knew his Dickens – there are streets with names like Dolly Varden Place and Bleak House Road. I suppose that shows a certain literacy, although I think some snob appeal was intended.
Anyway, back to Brasenose Place and its fellows. Looking at these street signs, I felt like shrieking “You’re not at Brasenose, Peterhouse or Balliol College. You’re in suburban New Zealand for feck’s sake! Look at the bush! ”
Not that my shriek would have made the least bit of difference. The marketing appeal of snobbish English names is fairly constant. But so is the incongruity that results when they are used in the wrong context.