Our biggest brashest city, Diane Brown

Auckland before the Harbour Bridge
Graham Stewart
Grantham House, $69.95,
ISBN 1869340868.

Almighty Auckland?
ed Ian Carter, David Craig and Steve Matthewman
Dunmore Press, $34.95,
ISBN 0864694520

History is big these days but it wasn’t when I was young. My parents disdained talk of the past or any hint of nostalgia – why would they want to remember the depression and the war? Growing up in Auckland in the 50s was all about looking forward, never backward. Now we can’t get enough of the old. Villas and antiques are treasured. Things my mother was happy to get rid of – like old metal safes – are worth a fortune. And historical novels, history, biography, and memoir are popular with publishers and readers.

I was eight and living in a state house with my parents and brothers in Grey Lynn when the Harbour Bridge was opened in May 1959. The week before the official opening, citizens were invited to cross the bridge by foot. A hundred thousand took the opportunity, an amazing number considering the population was 400,000. I was one of them. I remember my father telling us we would never be able to do this again. But I can’t remember the walk itself. With that many people I doubt I saw much apart from legs.

The bridge made a huge difference to us, as my grandparents lived in Rothesay Bay. Visiting for the day meant catching a tram or bus into town then the ferry to Devonport then a bus to Takapuna and another to the Bays. We would spend a few hours there and then repeat the journey home. I remember pushing on the back of the seat in front of me, thinking it might help the bus make it to the top of Sheriff’s Hill. When the bridge opened, my father bought a car, a Volkswagen, which seemed to me to be a statement of difference.

The opening of the Harbour Bridge and the wider availability of cars symbolised a vast change in Auckland. Subdivisions opened up all over the city. My parents turned their back on the shore. They’d started to build a house in Takapuna but my father declared the section was too small and they sold it and built a house in West Auckland where sections were cheaper and from where it was easy enough to drive into town. Auckland was becoming a place the car dominated.

Stewart’s book reminds us that it wasn’t always so. A large and interesting collection of photos of the early settlement are contrasted with contemporary shots. He also writes an accessible potted history. He has the credentials: his family association with Auckland goes back to 1840 and he was a photojournalist with the Weekly News and the New Zealand Herald. There are some surprising omissions, however. I would have liked a photo of people walking over the bridge, and where is the mentioned shot of the amphibian aircraft flying under it?

Auckland as seen by Stewart is dominated by transport. There are lots of photos of trams, buses, and trains and not enough of shop frontages or houses, and the people are incidental, part of the backdrop. That said it’s still a useful resource book for anyone interested in Auckland’s past.

In complete contrast – and despite the accessible-looking cover (a Canterbury kid holding an “I hate you Auckland” sign at a rugby match) Almighty Auckland? is a collection of relatively dense essays by academics primarily from the Department of Sociology at the University of Auckland. Definitely not a bedtime read then. I shouldn’t have found it difficult, after all I studied Stage 1 sociology at the University of Auckland and got As. But some of the essays are a little dry and I’m not sure they illuminate my own experiences of being born and bred an Aucklander.

At 49 I moved to fiercely parochial Dunedin. People, usually Aucklanders, ask if I miss Auckland. I always hesitate and wonder what that means. I miss my family and friends but Auckland itself? Auckland is a conglomerate of four cities: North Shore, Auckland, Manukau, and Waitakere. I have lived in three of these but have had little connection with the southernmost. How can you have loyalty to a place you’ve hardly ever been to? Also confusing the issue is Auckland’s rapid growth. Central Auckland didn’t seem that big to me as a young child. My mother knew many Queen Street passers-by by name, and later, rather inconveniently, seemed to know the background of any boy who asked me out. When I visit Queen Street today, I know no one and the faces are not those of the pakeha majority I grew up with. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I no longer feel I belong. The only familiar place is the Smith & Caughey department store, and that was never really my place, except in the twice-yearly sales.

And what of my other places? The North Shore has outgrown the holiday feel it once had and is now an endless line of suburbs full of upwardly-mobile refugees from other parts of the country or overseas. The Albany orchards I bought fruit and vegetables from have been replaced by factories and crammed-in townhouses. And the once 15-minute trip into town on the motorway now often takes well over an hour.

As for West Auckland, where the rest of my family still live, the vineyards and orchards have also gone the way of vast shopping areas but the Scenic Drive, site of teenage park-ups, is largely untouched. I was surprised to read in Steve Mathewman’s entertaining essay “Auckland’s Wild West” that the term Westie was not in use until 1977, seven years after I’d escaped by marrying. As a teenager I was aware that other Aucklanders looked down on west Aucklanders, unless you lived in Titirangi, which was the natural home of painters, potters, and poets. I grew up in Sunnyvale, Maurice Gee territory, but we hadn’t heard of him then and the neighbourhood was definitely not fashionable.

Perhaps I became aware of this when I was about 16 and met a boy in a nightclub. He picked me up in a Rolls Royce and everyone in the street came out to look. Needless to say he lived in Remuera and we quickly ran out of things to talk about. But I’d had a taste of a different life and I wanted more, so my new husband and I moved to Rothesay Bay which seemed to be moving up. Little did I know I was removing myself from an identifiable culture.

The North Shore doesn’t get close attention in Almighty Auckland? but neither does Remuera or Epsom. In her essay “Living Southside”, Tracey Mcintosh explains that the “South and the West represent a vibrancy – even if negatively expressed – that conjures up images etched on the consciousness not only of ‘others’ who reside in blander parts of Auckland but also those who live beyond its borders.”

It’s not without some sense of irony that when people ask me now where I came from, I identify myself as a Westie. The response in Dunedin seems to be that a Westie (ie someone from the outer borders and a possible rebel) is OK, an Aucklander is not. But my claim is not based on seeking approval, it’s more to do with how I now see myself and the fact that my inspiration to write was first drawn from my bedroom view of the Waitakeres. The vivid sunsets remain in my memory. If I were to go back to Auckland, this is where I would choose to live.

It’s unlikely that I will go back, however, for I do not miss the horrendous traffic problems mentioned in Ian Carter’s “Moving Targets” or the conversations about real estate frequently overheard in cafés. A cliché perhaps but true all the same. And surprisingly, despite the “whiteness” of Dunedin, I do not find it bland. Perhaps it’s because in such a small city eccentrics are more visible and acceptable. In fact it’s a place where the imagination can flourish, something I didn’t easily find in my adult life in East Coast Bays.

So who is the audience for Almighty Auckland? Essays on transport, history, sustainable development, the browning of Auckland, Asian immigrants, south, west, Mt Roskill, how Auckland is perceived beyond the Bombays, tourism, gays, art, and fashion offer a rich mix for researchers, academics, and those wanting a deeper understanding of our biggest, brashest city. Above all else, as David Craig concludes, this book confirms that “Auckland’s diversity is a social, a sociological fact”. Named Tamaki Makaurau (a hundred lovers) and also Tamaki Herenga Waka (meeting place) by prescient Maori, perhaps the landscape has conditioned this diversity. It can’t be pinned down to one easy slogan. “City of Sails” is only apt to those who can afford a sea view or a yacht. Those seeking a sense of place should perhaps look at individual suburbs, and for that, as Ian Carter himself admits, one must go to the “imaginative writers” – the poets and novelists.


Diane Brown is a memoirist, poet and novelist who teaches fiction at Dunedin’s Aoraki Polytechnic.


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