Calder At Large

Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: New face, but it's the same old place

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It's 'happy birthday' to a hometown that retains its familiarity, even if it has grown up and out over the years.

Victoria St, Hamilton in 1963. Photo / File
Victoria St, Hamilton in 1963. Photo / File

In those days, over the back fence was no man's land. Beyond the creek where eels nosed in the duckweed and cattle grew fat on grass so green it seemed blue, it was some man's land, of course, a farm. But to us it was an endless expanse of freedom that stretched off into the rising sun.

That back fence was pretty much the end of Hamilton - the open-road speed-limit sign was just a few doors along the street. Even with the orchard and chook-run and Mum's rockery and Dad's roses, our quarter-acre took forever to mow and the shilling I got for mowing it never seemed enough.

The upside was that the back lawn alone had room for a full-size cricket pitch, where a slip cordon of hydrangeas waited for an edge and the kitchen window waited for an uppish hook shot.

Now, an expressway passes the back boundary and I pass the house too quickly to pick it out. Even from the street frontage, its weatherboard and terracotta-tile bulk is hemmed in by cross-lease houses in front and behind.

No room for cricket there.

We left our home towns as soon as we could, then, resentful of their suburban complacency, lured by life in the big city. A boyhood friend, Chris Thompson, who grew up to be a wonderful guitarist and songwriter, distilled it in the refrain ("Hamilton, Hamilton, greatest little town in New Zealand / And I'd do anything to get away") to a song which was, if the truth be told, as much valentine as lampoon.

But we ex-Hamiltonians reserved the right to lampoon the place, particularly when the city started appending slogans to its name. "Where it's happening" was self-evidently false and "More Than You'd Expect" sounded faintly apologetic, too close for comfort to "It's Not Really That Bad".

Last weekend, the place celebrated its 150th birthday. I couldn't help chuckling when I read that from the start, people were doing anything to get away: its 1864 population of 1000 dropped by 700 in the next four years as farmers grew disheartened by the swampy land.


Victoria St in Hamilton today.

That aside, the date caught me by surprise, as when someone's kid, unseen since infancy, turns up at a wedding, married and with children of her own.

I had not forgotten Hamilton completely since I left; indeed I lived there briefly in the late 1970s, and I still visit in-laws there from time to time.

I drive the same streets I cycled when I wore short pants, marvelling at how near everything is to everything else. I look at my primary school playground and remember how vast it seemed, the field so distant that it hardly seemed worth running all that way to play cricket at morning break; now I can almost reach across it. I am larger - not just around the waist but because my world is bigger than the distance between home and school.

Hamilton is bigger too. There are four times as many people there as when I was a kid, and it's New Zealand's second-fastest-growing centre, after the mutating monster that is Auckland.

But it's hard to let your home town grow up. The human desire to see things as they were rather than as they are now is hard to shake, because holding on to our preconceptions gives us the comfort of certainty.

On the main drag, Victoria St, you don't see yards full of tractors and haybalers now, or stores selling milking machines and cattle drench. The south end has some pretty good restaurants. Paul's Book Arcade has gone and so has the faux-Tudor Civic, next to the municipal pools that we called "the mewnies", with no idea why, but there's a theatre across the street in the old Innes Tartan bottling plant where we used to cadge free fizzy drinks from a kindly receptionist.

So it's not a cow town any more. It spreads north to meet me - every time I drive down there, taking the back road from Taupiri, the outskirts seem to start a few hundred metres earlier - but there remains something reassuring about its scale and its familiarity.

It's like being in your own kitchen, where you can pick stuff up with your eyes closed. In Hamilton, I still know what's going to happen when I turn this or that corner. It will be different, but the same. In the best way. That makes it worth going back to - not getting away from. Happy birthday, Hamilton.

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