Can Auckland be saved? Redmer Yska

The Life and Times of Auckland 
Gordon McLauchlan
Penguin Books, $40.00,
ISBN 9780143007500

Urban Village: The Story of Ponsonby, Freemans Bay and St Mary’s Bay 
Jenny Carlyon and Diana Morrow
Random House, $70.00,
ISBN 9781869418373

New Local Government Minister Rodney Hide once remarked that New Zealanders could be divided into two groups: Methodists and whalers. We can probably guess which side of the development fence this Auckland Act MP identified with. Hide’s comment was a fresh twist on an old theme. In his 1976 book The Passionless People, Gordon McLauchlan made a similar distinction: between what he called “Flash Harrys” and puritans: “We came, we raped, subdued the landscape and then left to live in Auckland with other ex-Puritan Flash Harrys, reactionary in our bewilderment, suffering from acute ‘anomie’ .” Dunedin-born McLauchlan was of course dobbing himself in, having recently become an Aucklander.

Passionless People made McLauchlan a household name. He has gone on to achieve even greater prominence as a writer, historian, encyclopaedist and more. His latest book, The Life and Times of Auckland, shows him in vintage form, crafting luminous, opinionated portraits of his adopted city and surrounds, and minting fresh stories about its people.

The first section of the book consists of biographies of Auckland’s founders: vigorous types like Felton Mathews, John Logan Campbell and Governor William Hobson. The latter’s abiding belief in and work for Auckland earns him heroic status in the author’s eyes, giving him greater entitlement than Campbell to be called by that curious Victorian epithet “Father of Auckland”. Hobson might also be the founding Flash Harry; he is remembered for reselling land bought from Maori to settlers for a massive profit. The money, of course, went to government coffers.

Campbell, “the reluctant pioneer”, emerges as an equally flashy cove. Making his pile from a beachfront tent after 1840, he would later flee to Europe for long spells before coming back to live in Cornwall Park as the city’s richest and best-known citizen. Recalling his early days, Campbell laid out the Flash Harry gospel: “The whole and entire object here is making money, the big fishes eating the little ones.”

The chapter on Campbell dwells on a famous portrait held in the Auckland City Art Gallery. Elsewhere, McLauchlan refers to a painting of St Paul’s Church on Britomart Point. Neither work is reproduced here. Indeed Penguin has given its author the most meagre production imaginable; not even an index is provided, a travesty for a work purporting to be history.

McLauchlan strives to imagine how the city might have looked during its raw founding decades. He squints down present-day streets, following city historian Peter Ackroyd’s maxim about the writer’s need to visit “the half-visionary world of the past”. He connects past with present, locating seminal historical sites such as the battered walls around the Albert Barracks and the Waiariki Spring, still bubbling away in a car park beside the University of Auckland’s Law School.

He rightly points out that in contrast to the planned, orderly centres of Nelson, Wellington and Wanganui, Auckland grew like topsy as young, often single males poured in to make their fortune. Soldiers dominated the ranks of the newcomers. Australians made up almost half of the immigrants, and many of the others were rowdy Irish, some with convict backgrounds. No wonder Auckland sought to secede from the rest of the colony.

At times McLauchlan dons those old Flash Harry strides, keen to distinguish his city’s feisty, thrusting origins from the po-faced burghs of the south. But the woolly puritan socks show as he chronicles “very Auckland” atrocities against buildings and other landmarks. Is the anomie of a former Dunedinite poking through? As early as 1885, for example, a landmark church was demolished as part of the destruction of Britomart Point, a commanding promontory running off the northern end of what is now Princes Street. One settler called it “utilitarian vandalism”.

Or take the tale of Partington’s Windmill torn down by city fathers in 1950 after 99 years: “In an act of geronticide with the cavalier thoughtlessness about the past, all too common with the history of Auckland, it was demolished.” The Queen City is by no means alone, however, in showing disregard for built heritage. In 1958, the Wellington City Council summarily bulldozed the Bethune and Hunter Exchange, a rare fragment of the settlement era, to make way for a parking building.

As in any city history, the quest for better infrastructure – water, sanitation, transport and housing – tends to take over the narrative. In Auckland as in Wellington, the search for a decent water supply followed mounting pressure on shallow wells and the realisation their contents were contaminated with “organic matter”. By the dry summers of the late 1840s, Auckland sailors and soldiers were already scrapping over the use of the depleting water from Waiariki Spring.

McLauchlan leaves “organic matter” until late in the book, noting that “sewage has historically caused the biggest stinks in Auckland, bigger even than motorways, concert halls and sports stadiums.” The sobering chapter War of the Noses tells of Auckland City Council’s 1911 decision to dump raw sewage off Okahu Bay out east, home to Ngati Whatua settlements. Businessman Dove Myer-Robinson’s opposition to a subsequent scheme to pump shit into the Motokorea channel helped spark his political career, and made him the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history.

Talk of local government really gets McLauchlan in touch with his inner puritan. It brings to mind his Passionless People squib about the tourist standing by the pyramids: “The place would be marvellous if it wasn’t for the Arabs” (read Aucklanders). The 1976 book is also a useful reminder of the dramatic transformation of Auckland’s landscape. An attack on the Auckland City Council noted, scathingly, how nearly half of its 21 councillors lived in Remuera, with just three “beyond the social pale” in western suburbs like Herne Bay.

How things change. A generation on, the once rickety streets of the inner west play host to ranks of gold-plated, palm-shaded mansions. The story of the changing fortunes of Ponsonby, Freemans Bay and St Mary’s Bay over 160 years is the subject of Urban Village, a remarkable book that must be the most lavishly produced local history ever published in this country. A sprawling 450-page volume with 600 images, Urban Village is at the other extreme from the Penguin production: designed to within an inch of its life. Random House’s book almost bursts its seams, jumps the coffee table.

Arranged by theme, the work drills right down into this over-mythologised neighbourhood, offering detailed chapters on churches, schools, sports clubs, trade unions, music, slum clearance and gentrification, and community activism. This is bottom-up micro history, with an emphasis on personal stories. Unlike McLauchlan, with his focus on the great and the good, authors Jenny Carlyon and Diana Morrow explore the lives of grass-roots locals like Jim Edwards, the housing activist who ended up at the violent centre of the 1932 Queen Street riots.

Like McLauchlan, the authors – both urban historians and card-carrying puritans – work to stitch together past and present. We learn that in the late 1890s, a pair of suffragist campaigners – the wealthy Amey Daldy and carpenter’s wife Elizabeth Caradus – both lived in different parts of Freemans Bay. Both belonged to the Auckland Women’s Franchise League, a group promoting women’s rights. It was a cause that would be taken up in the 1970s by contemporary residents like Sandra Coney and her Broadsheet collective.

Bright things spill from this book. A modest Ponsonby villa – over a century variously a home to Auckland West MP Michael Joseph Savage, All Black Bryan Williams and writer Albert Wendt – becomes a living symbol of this area’s rich political, sporting, artistic and multicultural heritage. In 1990, Williams showed himself as a true pink Ponsonbyite by supporting a gay rugby club, the Heroes.

The book explores in detail the neighbourhood’s transformation from run-down and crowded inner-city district to Flash Harry heartland. There is chapter and painful verse on the orchestrated slum clearances of the 1970s that saw large numbers of Maori and Pacific factory workers pushed way out to Te Atatu and Otara. The urban village of the 19th and 20th century today amounts to an economically gated community; streets of million-dollar villas and a main street hissing with espresso machines, boutiques full of kitchenware and haute couture.

In the end, both of these books take on an elegiac tone, lamenting a ticky-tacky car-dominated “primate city” from which so much community life seems to have evaporated. Urban Village closes with a poignant section on the music scene that once rocked Ponsonby, recalling storied venues like The Gluepot, Java Jive and Alhambra. All have now shut their doors. Can a recently proposed super city council with presiding Lord Mayor save Auckland from itself?


Redmer Yska’s most recent book is Wellington: Biography of a City.  

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