(First published in The Dominion Post, June 14.)
ALL THIS discussion in the paper about Wellington’s future is all very well, but at my stage in life it’s much more fun talking about the past.I got my first job in the reading room of the Evening Post in 1968. My workmates were a glorious collection of oddballs.
I got paid $21 a week – more if I worked the Sports Post shift on Saturday afternoon. I got paid on Thursday and was invariably broke by Monday. The deputy head reader, a man named Vic, was my financial lifeline.When I got down to my last one and sixpence, it was a choice between a packet of Grey’s cigarettes – the only brand available in packs of 10 – or a Cheffy’s pie from the dairy around the corner. I usually chose the fags.
I flatted at the bottom of Devon St, in the Aro Valley. I swear everyone who ever lived in Wellington spent time flatting in Devon St. I had a neighbour with wild red hair whom everyone knew as Jungle Jim, whose flat was visited frequently by the police.
Legend had it that Jungle Jim once broke into a fisheries coolstore, slipped on the icy floor and knocked himself cold. He was found there, nearly dead from exposure, when the staff turned up in the morning.John Steinbeck would have recognised Wellington in the late 1960s; it was full of such picaresque characters. The underworld gathered at the Forester’s Arms Hotel in Ghuznee St; the publican, an old schoolmate of mine, was once convicted on the rare charge of allowing his premises to be frequented by habitual criminals.
I had my first pub drink in the Royal Oak Hotel’s famous Bistro Bar. I was 17 and my eyes must have stood out on stalks. Upstairs, the Royal Oak was quite posh, but the Bistro Bar was the haunt of prostitutes, transvestites and junkies. Even at midday it was like a scene from a Federico Fellini film.I met the woman who would become my wife at the Beachcomber coffee lounge in Oriental Bay – virtually the only place in town that routinely stayed open beyond midnight. Mother Grundy licensing laws meant the Beachcomber was officially dry, but everyone took alcohol that they surreptitiously added to their Coke.
Back then the only licensed premises, besides pubs, were a handful of licensed restaurants. I never quite understood the basis on which the authorities awarded liquor licences to such places, but it clearly had nothing to do with the quality of the tucker. Des Britten’s Coachman and Madame Louise’s Le Normandie were notable exceptions.The advent of the first BYO restaurants in the 1970s – places such as the Van Gogh and Harry Seresin’s Settlement – was the culinary equivalent of the Prague Spring. They were the trailblazers for today’s vibrant hospitality sector. But I admit to a nostalgic soft spot for the old Wellington grill rooms and steak bars, mostly owned by Greeks, of which the illustrious Green Parrot is the sole survivor.
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THE MAYOR then was Sir Frank Kitts. In retrospect, he was the perfect mayor for his time. Wellington may have had its defiant splashes of colour and non-conformist behaviour here and there, but generally speaking it was a grey, buttoned-down city.The towering Sir Frank was as dull as he was tall. He deduced that the key to popularity was to turn up at everything, which earned him the nickname the tea-party mayor. It seemed to work: he became the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history.
Michael Fowler, who replaced him, was a different proposition altogether – an engaging extrovert who roused Wellington from a long period of civic slumber.Since then the city has been well served by a succession of energetic mayors, notably Fran Wilde, Mark Blumsky and Kerry Prendergast, but some of the forward momentum seems to have been lost under Celia Wade-Brown.
I think of her as the accidental mayor. I suspect that if those who voted for her – probably with the intention of giving Ms Prendergast a fright – had realised thousands of others were doing the same, they might have put their tick elsewhere.Would John Morrison be able to arrest the slide? I have no idea.
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THESE DAYS I live in the Wairarapa – Masterton, to be precise – and barely a week passes when I don’t bump into another refugee from Wellington. The place is overrun with them.There’s more space here, the weather is a lot less challenging and the pace is more relaxed. I bet you didn’t know, for example, that there isn’t a single traffic light in the Wairarapa.
Wellington has changed in all sorts of ways. I can walk the length of the city these days and not see a single familiar face, something that wouldn’t have happened even 10 years ago.But if you asked people who now live on this side of the Rimutaka Hill about why the Wairarapa is so appealing, I bet most would say that one of the reasons is its proximity to Wellington. It’s hard to shake the place out of your system.