Making their marx? Piet de Jong

Putting our Town on the Map: Local Claims to Fame in New Zealand 
Claudia Bell and John Loyal
HarperCollins, $39.95
ISBN 1869501837

What a great subject for a book: a breezy study of the marketing campaigns, slogans, symbols and signs that have sprung up to promote small towns and cities all over New Zealand during the last five years. Everything from the giant sandfly at Pukekura, to Wellington’s Absolutely Positively campaign and a lot of other wonderful wackiness and weirdness in between.

The folk art of New Zealand is very much alive, albeit some of it awful, some of it derivative, some of it positively drug inspired and a lot put up by the local Lions Club.

University of Auckland sociologist Claudia Bell and artist John Lyall criss‑crossed the country for four years to collect engaging photographs and the stories behind these “local claims to fame”. They attribute the explosion of expression to the sense of loss felt by New Zealanders in the face of uncaring governments and the ruthless actions of the agents of national and international capital. Rather than lying around getting done‑over again and again ‑ by the loss of the post office, the dairy factory, the school, the hospital, some community leaders have drawn their towns together and said “let’s fight back”.

Some solutions betray a low budget with recycled materials and amateur signwriting used for the task. But there are also examples of carefully thought out decade‑long strategies and budgets of up to $1 million (Dunedin, Palmerston North and Wellington).

On the Map is usefully arranged into themes which tell us a lot about the mythologies we live by, the social and natural forces which have shaped us. Showcased are:

‑ towns which feature wild harvests: Kaikoura (crayfish), Bluff (oysters), Hokitika (wild food festival), Gore, Rakaia, Mataura, Turangi, (trout and salmon);

‑ towns which feature roots, fruits and leaves; Ohakune (carrot), Dargaville (kumara), Te Puke (kiwifruit), Cromwell (pip fruit);

‑ towns which feature flowers: Warkworth (kowhai), Hibiscus Coast, Alexandra (blossoms), Te Awamutu (roses).

The themes go on: cheese, farming animals, history, architecture, mining, natural attractions and so on. Strong photos and an interesting pop account of each town’s effort are given.

As always in marketing, it’s the search for something different, a way for a town to create something to gel in the mind of visitors and investors, to make them pause a while and buy an iceblock and a block of shops. One example given of the benefits of taking a zig when everyone else is zagging is the paua collection of Fred and Myrtle Flutey in Bluff. The Fluteys were collecting long before the rest of pakeha New Zealand saw the beauty in these shells.

On the Map‘s level of analysis is very accessible, faultlessly respectful to the weltanschauung of its subjects, but is inclined to lack challenge in its conclusions.

Take for example the giant carrot at Ohakune. This is a subject that stands up and begs for analysis beyond the technical details of how many kilograms of fibre glass went in to its making. Without getting conspiratorial about it or descending to the level of Wilson Bryan Key’s PhD (The ClamPlate Orgy: And other subliminal techniques for manipulating your behaviour, Signet Books, 1981) who meticulously identifies a sex orgy happening in a plate of clams on the place mat of a major American restaurant chain, there is clearly a case to be made that some pretty weird things are happening here.

Surely the people of Ohakune, of all people, know a carrot is a semiotically loaded object, not just a tasty root vegetable that goes with potatoes and mutton? The macrocephallic vegetable has an assured place in New Zealand literature thanks to James K Baxter’s poem “Ballad of Calvary Street”, a chilling depiction of the New Zealand family landscape. “Dad”, the impotent male protagonist of “Ballad”, cultivates a giant turnip with which to taunt his wife,

Look Laura, would that be a fit?

The bastard has a flange on it!

It’s a safe bet that in 1000 years’ time when archeologists dig the colossal carrot of Ohakune from its bed of ash they’ll pronounce it “some kind of fibre glass fertility symbol”.

The work of Ronald Hugh Morrieson and Frank Sargeson also highlights this distinctive genital displacement phenomenon in the New Zealand psyche. Morrieson, one of our most acute observers of small town life, parodies the phallic symbolism of the Hawera water tower in one story, while the protagonist in Sargeson’s The Hole that Jack Dug, manifests his general difficulty of getting on with girls by digging a hole in the lawn.

Another example, too recent for inclusion in On the Map, is the experience of Masterton ‑ Home of the Golden Shears. The town was shorn apart in November 1995 by furious debate over its new statue. The two loops of the giant shears handles and the thrusting blade formed clearly visible testicles and penis to some outraged locals. Sandra Coney has made similar observations about Auckland’s Sky City tower.

Rotary clubs and Lions clubs have been responsible for many of the structures profiled in On the Map. The way they bolt their service club signs to the completed erections to mark out, cat‑like, their territory is a form of “tagging” at least as irritating and a damn sight more prevalent than the spray‑painting techniques used by Polynesian wide‑boys. See for yourself how many of the signs, symbols and statues highlighted in On the Map have such service club insignia mounted on them.

While Bell and Lyall acknowledge the average small town’s overwhelming concern with the size of its status symbols (p13), they are prepared to ascribe this to a desire to be noticed and make an impression in a big and uncaring world. In the words of the marketing slogan for the controversial Mapplethorpe exhibition in Wellington ‑ see what you want to see!

Seriously, the symbols and the signs featured in this worthy book are epiphenomena of a wider and deeper sociological process. Our country is maturing and the pakeha community is busy inventing a bunch of myths to map the landscape, oblivious in most cases to our near obliteration of a millennium of Maori map making myths to do so.

The lack of visibility of Maori stories in our small towns is only briefly alluded to by the authors (p58). Fortunately the visibility of Maori stories is now increasing as Maori find their own increasingly strong voice, as parts of their voice and history are appropriated by corporate communicators (for example, the spine-tingling Air New Zealand television advertisement) and also as New Zealand returns to Pacific imagery to differentiate itself in the international tourist market.

In the meantime, the shabby, friendly, familiar, New Zealand main street ‑ the dairy, the cigarette signs, the passing cattle trucks and Holdens outside the TAB ‑ is moving on. Every small town has its Lotto sign now and likely a dozen bogans in black jeans ready to take their employment frustrations out on you. Like them or not, like giant carrots and small penises; the signs, symbols and slogans so assiduously charted in On the Map are here to stay.

Piet de Jong is a Wellington writer who grew up in a small town. He has never driven a Capri.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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