18 January, 2009 by rhesus12
No chance (nor inclination) to write anything recently, but I did get something published in the DomPost. It’s about Upper Hutt (the NY Times has not yet indicated interest in running it).
If I can trust Wikipedia on anything, I hope it’s that Upper Hutt is the nation’s smallest city by population but the second largest by land area. That’s 540 square km of suburbs, rivers, pensioners, metalers, young families, a mall that limped in from somewhere else to die, and quite a bit of stunning scenery. Green is what one thing I remember about growing up in the southern suburb, Silverstream.
The hills around Silverstream, which are actually more blue than green towards the Pinehaven end, were an excellent place to read Commando comics and plan for the next Japanese invasion. We spent years up there searching for the mythical route through the bush to the Stokes Valley dump. It exists, and I hope Silverstream’s young never give up that dream.
I went to the local Catholic college, St Pats. There were day-boys from all around the Hutt Valley. The boarders were usually from the various Catholic farming dynasties or the Tongan royal family. The entrance to the school was once used in a car ad featuring Gordon Jackson from The Professionals. In the corridors the smoke of Port Royal rollies would trail after priests in cassocks.
The farm out the back, where we did our own smoking, looked like fertile and valuable land. It ran up to pine forests on the hills which would sometimes burn, turn the sky blood red and rain ash on the classrooms.
I could never work out what sort of actual agriculture was took place on the farm, but once a year half a sheep would turn up in the common room fridge, the result of something probably assessable under School Cert. Various mysterious and possibly mystical Brothers would tend to chores in the field. One, a small anxious man with a pointed face, looked like someone taking a permanent bollocking from the Holy Virgin.
I enjoyed St Pats after about the fifth form, when I realised that it was a supportive and surprisingly liberal place to be young. Seventh form was particularly good as the arts started ranking with sport (to many it’s the academic arm of the Marist Rubgy Club) in the curriculum. There were some bone fide, Jesuit-strength intellectuals among the priests. I liked to think I had entered a battle of wills with a couple, and felt they would not do well before the coming revolutionary tribunal, but I think it was one way. They knew who spraypainted “Red army faction” on the wall of the Silverstream public toilets but never mentioned it, assuming some sort of spiritual struggle was taking place that had to run its course.
I was back in Upper Hutt recently and met an old woman at the library there. She was a font of local knowledge, most of it about her cats and her personal nemesis, the Possum Man of Kingsley Heights. Somewhere in it all she mentioned the “Silverstream school of painting”, which I looked up when I got home. And yes, based in the now-demolished Pumpkin Cottage and working from 1892, painter James Nairn and many talented regional artists developed the world’s most Upper Hutt-influenced body of art.
In those days apparently it was all farm and bush and people flirting with each other under watercolour trees. I like to think of all the wild absinthe parties and bohemian intrigue taking place just 20 metres (and 116 years) from what’s now the McDonalds, the panel beaters and the BP.
Moving away at the end of the seventh form demonstrated to me that not everyone understands the allure of Upper Hutt as well as did James Nairn. Every large city needs a supposedly backwards neighbour. Outrageous Fortune, Ewen Gilmour, Upper Hutt. If Wellington is New York, which is it isn’t, Upper Hutt is New Jersey. We import someone else’s intercity relationships and make them our own. A big city needs an uncool smaller sibling which it patronises but also gives an outlaw glamour.
I like to remind friends that the current trend of suburban patriotism, with its $120 “Island Bay” t-shirts and “Lyall Bay” badges, began with one iconic, non-ironic black t-shirt, on which was written two words: “Hutt Valley”. In an AC/DC font.