'Boring' Hamilton: wish you were here?

By Amanda Spratt

"Did you hear that? Someone's on heat today," says a pocket-sized grandmother as a howling echoes through the air. She is showing off her succulent collection and photos of the four good-looking, successful boys - a lawyer, an IT consultant, a builder, a PR manager - she raised happily with her husband within four white weatherboard walls in Hamilton East.

And so it is learned: A randy cow sounds much like a large dog that's been hit by a car.

"The soil here is very fertile peat. It's shrunk about two metres over the last 40 years and so when it rains, it just soaks up the moisture like a dry sponge," explains Waikato Tourism head John Rasmussen for no particular reason.

And that's why you'll be hard-pressed to find a puddle in Hamilton.

"Hamilton was named after Captain John Hamilton. His last words were, 'follow me boys' and then they blew his head off at the battle of Gate Pa. Whenever a Victorian screwed up that badly, they made a hero of him. Hamilton is built on very bad blood," says a local.

So Hamilton may have been buggered from the get-go.

Welcome to Hamilton. The Tron, Hamil-hole, Cowtown. The sexually-transmitted disease capital of the country, where everyone knows everyone, where business is sealed with a single handshake and the hospital is the most prominent feature on the landscape.

Hicksville Hamilton, billed as "the city of education and scientific research", a place apparently so boring even rugby players and Australians can't stand to spend time in it.

Last week, Queensland Reds rugby captain Chris Latham blamed boredom for his team's loss against the Chiefs. So limp was the city's offerings during their pre-match stay, the players just couldn't get up for the game, he said.

Two weeks ago, a South African rugby columnist said Hamilton was the most hated tour destination for the Springboks.

And it's not the first time.

Poor, long-suffering Hamilton, born into this northern family the little brother of Miss Popular, Auckland. Over the years, the pimply adolescent has been picked on, knocked around, beaten up, abused, teased and ridiculed.

But while the rest of the country drove around it, Hamilton's been quietly eating its greens, putting on the beef and getting some chutzpah.

Do your worst, New Zealand, bring on the sticks and stones. Words don't hurt any more. Come to Hamilton now, New Zealand, and you might be surprised.

"It's a grown-up city now," says Hamilton City Council communications and marketing manager Philip Burton, playing it cool after the media attention paid to Hamilton following Latham's comments.

He was asked to go on National Radio to talk about it but he couldn't be bothered, he says.

He thought they were probably going to do a bit of a piss-take.

"We don't feel the need to defend our city. We don't care, we're past reacting every time someone says something negative about the city."

He doesn't want to give people a list of what to do in Hamilton. The question, according to Burton, is, "what would you like to do?"

Want to play golf? There's six courses. Want to go for a walk along the river? You can. Want to be a pilot? CTC Aviation, the largest trainer of international pilots in the world, has its base here.

"It's about Hamilton telling those surprising stories. There are cities all over the world that would love to have a statue of Riff Raff made by Weta Workshop in their main street.

"You tell me a city that wouldn't love to have it. Of course they would. It shows that Hamilton's got a little more to it."

Not that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is Burton's cup of tea - it's a bit too unusual.

With so much going on - the city has just snared the World Rally Championship - the council launched a new campaign last year to brand the city. But - surprise! - you won't find any slogans here.

"We decided we were going to be a slogan-free zone. City slogans are pretty much a failure. You say any city slogan and people will have a laugh at it.

"You just can't win. It's about events, not slogans."

And so it's not Hamilton any more. It's Hamilton. As in, there's stuff on in Hamilton.

There were 795 events listed on the city's events website last Friday.

Here's a sample: A Super 14 rugby match, the national pipe band championships and Celtic carnival, comedy ventriloquist Strassman's national Get Chucked tour and a Waikato Accordion Group meeting.

"We need some substantiation around the 'on'," says Burton.

"But we're certainly on our way and I think we can quite justifiably claim to be the events city."

Which very nearly sounds like a slogan.

Burton is paid to cheerlead for Hamilton. On the city's main streets, the reaction is mixed.

What's the best thing for tourists Hamilton? "The gardens," says one. "The gardens!" says another. "It's unlikely to be hit by a natural disaster," says a security guard originally from Auckland.

Definitely the gardens, say students Eryn and Aaron. Goth-pale, she looks like anything to do with the natural processes of life is against her death metal religion. He looks like he should be on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. In a city known for its Bible belt, conservative jock culture, they stand out, just a little.

"We do have a very high percentage of boofheads. It is still quite conservative. I don't like Hamilton for that. But there's an undercurrent of alternative hardcore kids like us," says Aaron.

Eryn, who is eloquent despite the dog collar strangling her neck, says she had a great time at high school here. Then she says something others have already whispered in revered tones: "You know, I've met a lot of people from Auckland who come down here for the clubs. I've dragged friends from Auckland down here for the clubs. They've always said they've had a good time."

One Aucklander confessed it was almost worth the trip down just for the designer clothes shop Solo.

A red-eyed, giggly woman is surrounded with McDonald's fries and children in the Downtown foodcourt. She has five children, aged 7, 6, 5, 4 and 2. She is also helping out with her younger sister's first baby, Jahvaeah-Lee. Her sister is pregnant again but will give the new baby to her parents. Someone just out of high school can't cope with two children under the age of 1.

Hamilton is boring, they say. The night life is pretty good but during the day there's nothing to do. They've been hanging around the shops today. Then they're going home to sleep. But they wouldn't move to Auckland.

"It's much safer here for kids."

Hamilton born-and-bred Dave Collins has spent his lunchtime thinking about why Hamilton is so boring. He hasn't come up with much. "They're right, I guess. If you sit down and think about it, there's not much to do. It's not a tourist attraction. We're built in a hole. If we look around the city, I suppose it's pretty boring. But I'll always come back here."

His daughter has a horse in the backyard and he can cycle to work in 15 minutes.

How much more do you need?

Outside, in the central city, a rangy bunch of yoof are conspicuous in their trendy ridiculousness. They have names like B-Boy Stretchmark and Delight and appear to have raided their father's gym kits for clothes. These are cool cats - two of New Zealand's best breakdancing crews.

And they think like their mothers.

They worry about the gangs, the boy racers and the crime. They hate the influence of "rip-off hip hop" rappers glamorising the gangsta lifestyle on Kiwi youth.

"It's not boring, it's what you make of it. Academically, it's on the up," says Mr Stretchmark.

And Mr TJ: "H-town's not boring. If you're a boring person, then things are gonna be boring. This city's just growing, aye? There's, like, money in this city now. I ain't got any of it but there's some rich cats out there bringing money in."

Michael Miller remembers rowing practice down the Waikato river when it was drunk with the run-off from the local brewery. He would come out with legs stained with ethanol, having taken out a few intoxicated ducks with his boat along the way.

Swami Hasyo was here during the 1981 Springbok riots: "That was the day this city banished boredom."

Miller and Hasyo have lived in Hamilton for years.

They sit outside the fabled Metropolis Caffe, where Frank Sargeson used to come when it was Paul's Book Arcade: A hard-living muso with a dancing ciggie and a constant beer and a barefoot guru with his pushbike and black coffee.

Hasyo was involved in the spiritual branch of the now-extinct McGillicuddy Serious Party, founded in Hamilton in 1984 due to "a terrible case of arrested development on the part of undergraduates".

They're happy to be labelled boring: It'll keep everyone away. And even boredom is interesting.

"It's a fecund concept. To be bored suggests space and time and freedom. We have such high expectations right now. The electronic world gives us constant stimulation. To be bored is a luxury," says the dreadlocked Hasyo.

In truth, Hamilton was never really boring. It was conformist. "When that form of conformity was being enforced, it was a different era. It was the time of the great New Zealand clobbering machine, pre-1981. We have changed so much, so rapidly," says Hasyo.

Conformity bred rebellion and innovation. Sargeson, Dr Michael King and scientist Dr Campbell McMeekan all lived here. And it's always had a strong music scene: The Datsuns, Yokel Ono. Of course, they all moved out: Hamilton exports its talent well.

But the pair can understand that the reputational hangover of Hicksville Hamilton remains.

"People like to have an 'out group'. We do it with Auckland, with the whole JAFA thing. And even better that it's an arbitrary group so one can't be labelled as racist or sexist or anything."

Now it's possible to be "a healthy sports-free zone" in Hamilton and not be alienated, says Hasyo.

They both agree: The decision to erect the Riff Raff statue marked a sign that the city is coming out.

"What a great city that decides to erect this as an icon of Hamilton - a middle-aged man in fishnet stockings. It goes back to the homo-erotic notion of men playing rugby."

"Hey, it's that guy off Fair Go," yells a dairy-fed girl in her Hamilton night uniform of tight and white. Not quite but Close Up presenter Mark Sainsbury is causing a stir at 1am in the Bahama Hut. One admiring fan gushes: "Wow, it's Mark Sainsbury. I know he's not that famous but this is Hamilton. It doesn't take much to be treated as a celebrity."

And so Hamilton is a must-visit for any starlet in need of an ego boost.

"We've got the World Rally Championships, we've got the V8s, we've got the gardens, we've got the field days, we've got great restaurants, a great hospital and great people, we've got Raglan, we've got Whangamata, we're close to skiing, we've got the balloons, we've got New Zealand's biggest aluminium extrusion conglomerate. It's a happening place," says Todd, not surprisingly a long-time local.

Hamilton: the events city.

On the main street of Hamilton, Sam is moving out of her flat. The double mattress is on the roof of the family stationwagon and a lead-lidded mother is in the front seat. It's 2am. "We can't find a car park on the main street during the day, so we have to move now," says Sam.

"Yup, welcome to Hamilton! We're all crazy down here!

- HERALD ON SUNDAY

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