Monday, March 31, 2014

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

            I was not an habitual truant from school. In fact, I was more the sort of goodie who would go to school dutifully even if I felt slightly sick, and I would stress over any homework that I had not been able to do. But one morning, when I was about fourteen, something inside me turned mildly rebellious. It was the last week of term, we had already done, and been given the results for, our internal school exams, and it was clear that this last week was going to be a great waste of time as the teachers found things to keep us busy before the holidays began.
            So, with the sun shining when I should have been mounting my bike and riding to school, I decided to take a walk in the bucolic wilderness. I put on casual clothes and walking boots and donned a cast-off Aussie-style military slouch hat, which had once belonged to my elder brother Piers. I cut a lunch and tossed it into a tramping pack, together with as many apples as I could carry and a water bottle. And I began to walk east.
            This was the mid-1960s
            We lived in the more settled part of the east Auckland suburb of Panmure. At the bottom of our road was what was still the main bridge crossing the Tamaki estuary – or “river”, as everyone called it. And beyond the river was a narrow ribbon of houses, and then the green farming fields of Pakuranga.
            I walked over the bridge. I walked past the narrow ribbon of houses on the other side. I walked past the solitary supermarket that was a just a little beyond them. The morning sun shone benignly and I began to climb the hill that went past St Kentigern’s College, the Presbyterian boys’ boarding school. I might have been whistling. I might have been singing. I did these things when I was on my own.
Suddenly a bus swept past me going in the opposite direction, and I heard whoops and jeers and my name being called out. It was the wealthier boys who lived all the way out in snobby Howick and who were bussed every day to the school I attended. I had been rumbled. They had recognized me and realized I was taking the day off illegally.
The bus disappeared and I kept walking, only momentarily troubled by the questions I would face when I got to school the following day.
I communed with dairy cows. I communed with green fields. I walked past the old Pakuranga community hall which must have been built for the farmers in the 1920s or earlier, and which had a wooden “rising sun” motif over its front entrance. I was way out in the country and smelling the country air. I had passed the turn-off to “Pigeon Mountain” – a small hill, half of which had been quarried away, with pine trees on it.
Then began the long, gentle climb up the slope towards the country town of Howick. It had taken me a couple of hours walking from home to reach its small main shopping street, to plod past the Catholic church near the hill with the flagpost on it, and the small, picturesque nineteenth century Anglican church where, even then, couples chose to get married simply because it looked so quaint. My mother told me that I was born in a nursing home in Howick, so I had some sort of connection with the village.
I was tired, but I did not stop. I kept walking until the village ended and I was among green fields once again. I pressed on past the farms, past the mooing cows, past the windbreaks and the barbed-wire fences. I was now in deep country, a completely different world from the fringe suburb where I lived. And then came the sharp dip into the deep valley where the little country hamlet of Whitford sat. Only when I reached Whitford, the best part of four hours walk from my home, did I sit down and drink my water and eat my lunch.
It was now early afternoon and a horrible thought occurred to me. I had no money. I was faced with the daunting prospect of spending at least four hours trudging back home. It began with the long, painful plod back up the Whitford hill. Then a small miracle happened. It was halfway up the climb when a maroon-coloured bus, belonging to the old Howick Bus Company, drew level with me. I waved tiredly to the driver. He stopped. His bus was empty. He asked me where I was going. I told him. “Hop on”, he said. I said I had no money. He shrugged and said it didn’t matter, and in 25 minutes he had driven me back home, free of charge. I’ve sometimes wondered if, in a more commercially competitive age, any bus driver would be willing to give a kid a free ride like this now.
Anyway, I had taken my bucolic walk and I had been far from the city and I had communed at least with that part of nature that farmers had tamed.
Flash forward about twenty years to the mid-1980s.
I was now a young married man with a growing family of young children. I lived across the harbour bridge on the North Shore. My widowed mother still lived in the family home out in Panmure. I visited her most Sundays, usually with wife and small children. One Sunday I took it into my head to take her for a country drive. I had images of the green fields between Pakuranga and Howick, past which I had trudged as a schoolboy. Mum seemed a bit dubious about this, but we all squeezed into the car and away we went over the bridge crossing the Tamaki “River”. And I discovered in a matter of moments that the country wasn’t there any more. It was solid suburbia and malls and supermarkets from Panmure to Howick. Pakuranga was just another big dormitory suburb with not a green field in sight. Pigeon Mountain was even smaller and more bulldozed than it had been when I was a kid, with houses abutting it. There was no gap in the housing between Buckland’s Beach and Eastern Beach, and Howick was no longer a little village.
I sighed. My image of the open country evaporated. My wife wondered why I came back from the drive rather grumpy. She didn’t come from this part of Auckland, so she didn’t know what my mind’s eye still saw.
For various reasons, I’ve made many visits to that side of Auckland in the 30-odd years since I took my mother for that Sunday spin. I have seen large chunks of Howick become streets of obscenely ostentatious mansions for Asian dentists. I have seen the motorways and bypasses become even bigger and more dominant and noisy as they drive out east. I have seen the suburbs creep out so far that there now is scarcely a green field between Howick and Whitford. Most of the new suburbs’ inhabitants are not aware that there ever was. Maraetai, which used to be the very fringe of civilization, is now drawn into the urban Auckland orbit.
Let me give you the lesser moral to my story. Urban sprawl in some form is inevitable, even if I am always bemused by the phenomenon of so much good farm land so near the city being successively swallowed up. I am aware that the settled suburban street on which I lived as a child had been there for only a few years. When my parents built there in 1948, they and their neighbours were settling on what had been horse paddocks. I am aware that the well-settled North Shore suburb on which I now live was farmland fifty years ago. Old archival black-and-white aerial photos, from about 1960, show me grass-covered fields, with a creek running through them, where my street now is. So I am not writing this to condemn the new inhabitants of Pakuranga and Howick and Whitford. I am part of the same process as they are.
But the more important moral of the story is this. In spite of my subsequent knowledge, in spite of what my rational mind tells me, the first thing I think of when I think of Pakuranga is green fields and the countryside. The image was so firmly imprinted on my young brain that, though I know it is irrational, whenever I visit the area and look at the suburbia now, I think: “This is a ghost landscape. This shouldn’t really be here. This isn’t the real Pakuranga.”
I do not attach this feeling solely to the area in which I grew up. Only recently I, for the first time in years, visited the west Auckland suburb of Henderson. I almost shudder to use the word “suburb” for again, when I was a child, it was a separate little town of its own, with farmland cutting it off from the older suburbs and with a certain romantic ring to it, as it had Auckland’s first big commercial vineyards in an age when wine was still a foreign eccentricity. And again, at the sight of its same-as-all-the-others malls, a part of my mind struck up with “This isn’t the real Henderson.” Then there is the allied phenomenon, upon which I will not enlarge, of visiting the central city, looking at the newer buildings and saying “By rights, these shouldn’t really be here. They are not the real Auckland.”
I am playing you the same tune that I played recently when I talked about sound recordings. Just as all technology is transient, so are all our impressions of the world we live in. The sunny country road I once trudged isn’t there any more. But it lives in my mind and colours the way I see what is now external reality. And it reminds me of one eternal truth.
This too will pass.”

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