Palmerston North! Spain’s football team at the women’s World Cup reportedly said it was “boring”, a claim they denied. I believe them. Something was clearly taken out of context, something was obviously either lost in translation or just came out in a way it wasn’t intended. There are many words and phrases in Spanish that lose their bright colours when we say the same thing in flat, monochromatic English. For instance, we say, without metaphor or poetry, “Small world!” Spanish speakers say, “El mundo es un panuelo!”, meaning, “The world is a handkerchief!”
Palmerston North! I lived there. I took the bus from Wellington for a job interview. I was unemployable, the bottom of journalism’s barrel. But Radio 2XS were prepared to offer a sucker an even break. I sat in reception at their offices on Broadway Avenue. It was a Saturday. I listened to the station on a speaker on the wall. The DJ played It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll to Me by Billy Joel. When it finished, the announcer said, “Beautiful day in the Manawatū. Whether you’re gardening, or inside making a cup of tea, or out on the streets protesting [the Springbok Tour] - have a good one!”
Palmerston North! I packed everything I owned into a suitcase, and once again took the bus from Wellington. I arrived on a Sunday. I looked around the wide, empty streets. It was winter. A cold wind moved through the bare willows. The town was as flat as a table. You could see forever. There was nothing to see. No one moved. Wellington was lots of people, Wellington was house lights burning all hours in homes on hills above the black harbour; what had I done, where had I come to?
Palmerston North! It put me to work. I took on the morning news shift at 5am. I borrowed a neighbour’s bicycle and rode the Manawatū flatlands in the dark. A mist rose from the black river. I wore gloves, a woollen hat, two jerseys, Ugg boots. When I added a balaclava, I was stopped several times by police. It was so cold my eyes streamed - a young man crying on the Pākehā streets of dawn, looking forward to a fix of hot instant coffee made at the staff kitchen. Then I heard about Ian Watkin. He was a legendary actor – Sleeping Dogs, Goodbye Pork Pie, the crazy minstrels of Blerta – who worked as a late-night DJ. I was told he came to work with a metal trunk. The trunk was filled with bottles of spirits and a wide range of drugs. He would set them up in his studio. I took on the late news shift.
Palmerston North! Population 88,300, cosying up on a prairie measuring 395 square kilometres or 98,000 acres. I loved it and never wanted to leave. It was so pretty, a town of beautiful trees, clinging to the river – river towns are the best towns, all that water running like an electric current, that sense of exits and journeys, that idea of life headed towards a distant and unseen ocean. The days and nights were landlocked. You could see forever. There was so much to see. Auckland is only ever Auckland, Wellington is only ever Wellington; river towns like Hamilton and Palmerston North belong to something bigger than themselves, to the regions of Waikato and Manawatū, to fields and crops and farms, to that thing we call, with every good reason, the heartland.
Palmerston North! “We are a modest people,” wrote relocated Wellington poet James Brown, in his celebrated poem, I come from Palmerston North. The next lines read, “but we are fiercely proud of the bustling, go-ahead city/ at the heart of the Manawatū Plains.” There is a school of thought that he is being ironic but I think he is being sincere. Interestingly, the poem names The Mutton Birds’ guitarist Alan Gregg as a famous person from Palmerston North; he played on that legendary ode to New Zealand life, The Mutton Birds hit Dominion Road. There are echoes of that song – its melancholy, its sense of belonging - in Brown’s poem. He writes, “someone asked me / where I thought I was coming from./ I come from Palmerston North.”
Palmerston North, Palmerston North, Palmerston North. We are all Palmerston North; all of New Zealand is essentially a province, a region, a land of farm and swamp, river and alluvial plains; we go about our affairs, we work hard, our eyes stream in the cold dawn and we look at distant horizons over empty fields. We live in cowtown. We live at the end of the world on islands the size of a panuelo. We love it; and the truth is we’d rather live in Palmerston North than Spain.