Sunday, March 27, 2011

Road trip IV: Encounters with the dead, the un-dead and the soon-to-be-dead in Napier

Something we Euro-descendant antipodeans suffer from is a lack of our own, tangible history.  Sure, we have indigenous history, but no one's really happy about our claiming that as our own, and these days, harking back to tales of the ol' country's not considered all that PC either.  So we meander through life not really sure of ourselves; who we are, where we've come from, and when it comes to vacations, rather than head 'out back' to see the natural wonders which are the envy (and desired destination) of our kindred in the northern hemisphere, we take off to Europe every few years to get all aroused and drooly over 14th century gothic churches.

Apart from history and natural beauty (the latter often combined with outdoor adventure sports), the other main thing that travellers are looking for when they hit the road these days is excellent, modern cuisine.  Unusually for any single place in the world, New Zealand's Hawke's Bay has managed to land the Trifecta, boasting fantastic, rolling green foothills, sweeping, misty sea views, fine wines and dining and, thanks to a fatal natural disaster eighty years ago, an intriguing history which has resulted in a fascinating anomaly of town-planning such to induce rare, south-of-the-equator stirrings in the gussets of architecture aficionados.

Coming down off the putting-green foothills to the plains was pretty lovely; the bright blue, sweeping bay views were spectacular and the abundance of vineyards gave that whiff of promised fun over the coming days.  But as we got closer to the town, we ended up on a highway bypass, looking at the high back fences of new housing developments such that you'd see from any such arterial, anywhere in the world ... except that these fences were really, really high.  "What are they hiding from?", I enquired of my colleague and former Napier resident, Madge Q, shortly after my return to work.

"Everyone visits Napier and spends their day walking around marvelling at the lovely art deco streets, taking happy snaps and joy rides in 1930s motorbikes with side-carts; buying Old English Toffee and pretty bags of lavender-infused potpourri from the souvenir and gift shops," responds Madge Q, "and they head-away in the late afternoon thinking that Napier consists of only two square blocks sitting on the shore.  But," she adds, now very animated, "Napier's a big centre, eh?  And beyond those few, sculpted streets, there're a lot of people living in pretty poor conditions; unemployment's at 462% and rival gangs go each other with clubs and chains in supermarket carparks every night.  That's what the glossy tourist brochures don't tell you about, but there's a lot to be read in the heading, 'Visit Napier; one of New Zealand's great day trips' – get out before dark, everyone!".

Useful words of warning, Madge Q, but delivered two weeks too late!  T'was true enough, though.  With the exception of the tourist-industry bolstered, main thoroughfare, every second store-front in Napier was empty, and those that were occupied comprised charity op-shops, Chinese import stores selling an array of brightly-coloured plastic household 'essentials', and a surprising number of employment brokers (each handily located just a few short steps from the unemployment benefit office).  Napier was truly a down-and-out town!

But this message hadn't really hit home to us until our second day in Napier, when at about sunset (as always, Madge Q was spot-on), we went searching for some fish and chips - what's that? ... Oh, alright ... some fush 'n' chups - for dinner and ended up driving down streets now deserted of traffic, but along which entire households had emptied-out onto the pavement where they lounged on tattered sofas, drinking from brown paper bags while their dirty kids played in the gutters.

Our dinner was bought from a grubby, back-street store sporting a peeling, once-white art deco facade, and we adjourned to the grassy playground by the beach to sit and eat.  Here, even dirtier children hovered at the edge of our vision like (and with) a pack of marauding sea gulls intent on our steaming dinner, while their parents sprawled beneath windy branches shouting and swearing at each other.

Now, one likes to think one's all very equitable, inclusive and understanding of the various ways of the world, with all its different walks of life and so-on, but I can now attest to this generosity of nature; to this enlightenment going completely out the window once you've got a wee-one in tow.  "Not in my bloody backyard!".

So, scared shitless for our safety, we began scoffing our deep-fried goodies with huge, burning mouthfuls, and shoving steaming-hot morsels into our screaming child's maw in an effort to get out with our lives as quickly as possible.  Only half-finished, and with the slavering kids circling closer, Mrs D and I agreed it was time to get clear.

As we stood to clean-up and get moving, the vacant, starving kiddies looked over and started limping towards us like a pack of mindless zombies out on a feeding frenzy.  As Mrs D quickened towards the car and I picked-up Hambones in an effort to move with a bit more pace, the said pack of marauding urchins responded with a similarly accelerated, instinctive lurch in our direction.  Openly running now, all I could hear were my pounding blood booming in my head, Hambones' frightened whimpers and the hungry moans of our slavering pursuers, hot on my heels ... I was losing my grip on Hambones as I got close to the car, and I realised it was either him or the dinner; I threw down the greasy package and dived for the car as Mrs D dropped the gas and screeched off past the pink and beige, art deco arches of Marine Parade.  Through ragged breaths I glanced back and shuddered to see the young kids throwing punches and scratching at each other's faces as they ripped open the greasy white paper and gorged themselves on the fleshy remains of our ill-omened dinner.

But it wasn't all Dickensian soup kitchens and sinister run-ins with The Undead - just as long as you were in and out before dark.  As I mentioned earlier, Napier's fame as an internationally recognised art deco capital is a positive outcome of a devastating earthquake in 1931, which completely wiped-out the town, leaving the land clear and ready for a stylish re-building to reflect Napier's prosperous, industrial reputation, and to communicate the 'only way is up', great expectations New Zealand had for the beach-side holiday destination.

Within a year or two of the quake, award-winning town planning had been issued and heavily regulated, structured building was well underway on a fashionable, 'golden mile' stretching down Tennyson Street from the beach to picturesque, Clive Square.  It was all about style; it was all about image; and it was all about wealth. 

And into this building boom wandered a young Frank; our landlord for a couple of nights while in town.  I had caught Frank in a difficult circumstance the day before; turns out he wasn't quite the potty-mouth I had experienced on the phone, but rather a clean-living Baptist Minister with an eye for a real estate bargain.  So in the 1940s, once building authorities gave the 'all-clear' for the new coastal land that the 'quake had thrown-up just to Napier's north, Frank took out a subsidised building loan and built a fantastic, art deco mansion directly opposite the beach.  Nowadays, with his family grown and moved away, Frank rents out the bottom floor to savvy tourists such as ourselves, and it was here we spent our first, fantastic evening in a stylish house, with modern bathrooms and awesome kitchen facilities, kicking-back with some great micro-brews, a glass or two of Hawke's Bay Syrah and chomping on a succulent NZ lamb roast while gazing out over blustery, foaming waves.  What a find!

So after a great night's sleep in luxury surroundings, we took-in a lazy breakky and played on the windy beach before heading into town to see what all this art deco guff was really about.  While I will admit that I was pretty impressed with the stylish, two-toned architecture upon our first whip-around, after having done the two-block circuit in two minutes, my interest was starting to flag. There were a couple of key buildings which we went and posed for snaps in front of, but as buildings, well, that's all they are without a good story behind them to make 'em interesting.

Did someone ask for a good story?  As I said before, Napier's mass embrace of all things art deco in the '30s was all about style; all about image; and all about wealth.  Amongst the booming economy of post-depression New Zealand, Napier was at the forefront of showy displays of industrial might, and as big business clamoured over itself to secure newly appeared port access (thanks to the 'quake throwing-up about three metres of terra firma), the largest, best-positioned plot was secured for the stunning Rothmans (National Tobacco Company) Building; a sprawling, flawless, gargantuan demonstration of classic art deco fit for communicating the awesome industrial might of The Empire's tobacco subsidiaries.

The Donkeys stopped for a pose outside this celebrated monument to the furtherance of New Zealand's oncology industry.  The fine structure retained pride of place amongst the nation's collective consciousness for decades, long after millions of Kiwi smokers began expiring with sinister, black fluid dripping from their autopsied lungs.

In the name of celebrating New Zealand Industry, Napier's Rothmans factory became the preferred destination of field trips for primary school students across the length and breadth of the North Island.  The venue offered a great, three-in-one learning opportunity for an increasingly under-resourced, post-baby-boomer education system, combining lessons of Napier's tragic seismological history with the art deco movement of the '30s and, most importantly, an impressive display of national industry.  What better way to convince the young of New Zealand's impenetrable, economic robustness than to expose them to the production of tobacco products?

And so, through they went ... for decades.  I am assured by my informed correspondent, Salmon (Madge Q's long-suffering companion and former favourite son of Napier) that there is a not a single North Island citizen over the age of twenty-three who, as a child, has not visited Napier's Rothmans factory, and been given as many cigarettes as s/he can carry in their little hands to 'take home to their parents'.  Not surprisingly, New Zealand's tobacco industry was one of the last of its global peers to experience declining output ... in 2009!

It was shortly after this stop on the art deco trail that we went searching for fish 'n' chips.  Needless to say we refused Frank's offer the next morning for a free, additional night's accommodation.  We hightailed-it out of crazy old Napier that morning, heading for stinky Rotorua, and, as it turned out, another potential opportunity for a serial-killer thriller.

Napier's stunning Rothmans (National Tobacco Company) Building; servicing the nicotine addiction of New Zealand's primary school children for over half a century.  Pic: