She was a Wellingtonian. Born and bred. Through and through.
Perhaps it was her stories about bustling electric trains to the Hutt Valley in the 1930s, the mysterious “opium dens” in Haining Street as she scooted past on her way to Wellington Tech as a teenager, or the building projects that her father worked on in the capital.
My first visit to Wellington in the early 1970s sealed my fate. Seeing the “skyscrapers” of Lambton Quay, munching a burger at Big Tex on the corner of Cuba and Ghuznee Streets, walking along the invigorating waterfront, a night spent up at Carter Observatory watching a lunar eclipse, a ride on the train up to Coastlands for the novelty of Saturday shopping followed by lunch at The Fisherman’s Table. I was hooked.
And so I moved here in 1979, and can’t escape for long.
Back then Wellington was a government town. Property magnate Bob Jones poked the borax at its grey shoe brigade of civil servants and backed Carmen for mayor. An SIS spy featured in the press for having a pork pie and a Penthouse in his briefcase while on assignment. Hip flasks were smuggled into Dr John’s Disco to help invigorate the soft drinks. Worcestershire sauce sprinkled onto buttered white bread was the entree at one of Courtenay Place’s many chinese cafes. And on the way home to Mount Vic. along Vivian Street, Carmen would be touting for trade “Hi boys, how about a coffee?” at 3 a.m.
Leaf through any of Pat Lawlor’s excellent books on Wellington, and you’ll realise Wellington’s long history as a sociable town. Even in the 1970s and 1980s it was a place of exotic eateries and bars. The Acropolis in Dixon Street was often something of a riot, and you had to be there early if you wanted to order their stuffed vine leaves. More sedate dining could be had at the Vienna in Manners Street where the star dish was tournedos rossini – tournedo steaks wrapped in crispy bacon.
The California Steak Bar in Willis Street offered prompt service, leaving plenty of time for a leisurely drink upstairs at the nearby Carlton Hotel before closing time. One knocked on the front door of Orsini’s Restaurant in Cuba Street to be let in past the cramped pianist. Candle-lit tables were shoe-horned into every available space, and street light entered via shuttered windows. After a show, the old world Midland Hotel was a favourite stop for a late night drink – the first floor bar offered tea and coffee in silver service with crisp linen napkins.
Windows on Wellington, located on the 20th floor of the Williams City Centre was a place where staring into her limpid pools competed with staring at Wellington’s sparkling jewels laid out below us – fantastic venue, shame about the menu.
If an evening dancing in Chloe’s at The 1860 was your thing, then you could always still get a feed at the somewhat gloomy Camelot restaurant in the days of 10 o’clock closing with such fare as pate steak or a “Sir Loin” dish. Then you could carry on to Slack Alice nightclub on Plimmer’s Steps.
Many of these establishments have disappeared over the years, along with the streets like Sturdee and Farish which served them. The Mexican Cantina’s original location in Willis Street is still in use – by Ye Jun. The clientele is more sedate, but I’m certain that the carpet is original and the steps are just as steep.
Wellington has long been a place where people from all over New Zealand came to because there was work. What a melting pot! And yet, its a windy old rat-hole. The winters can be damp, and the summers are mild – not baking hot like in Gisborne. Those frequent southerlies slice through you like a knife. The threat of a big earthquake hangs over us like the sword of Damocles.
But then its a wonderfully compact city. Crammed onto the edge of a harbour of magical beauty. Houses stuck to the sides of steep hills as if glued there. Populated by people of every race and creed. Commuting to work is a doddle if you’re on one of the railway routes.
No matter how grim the work-day morning, you pop out of that first railway tunnel and hurtle over the top of the motorway at Ngauranga Gorge and hear out-of-towners gasp as they get a quick glimpse of motorway mayhem before they plunge into the second tunnel; and then “pop” out the end and down the slope toward Wellington. There she is: sparkling in the morning light, tall buildings cheek-by-jowl with the hills looming above them.
Sometimes Lambton Harbour is like mirror glass, tinkling in the sun. Sometimes she is angry, whipped up by 10 metre swells outside the heads in Cook Strait. At other times she is mysteriously filled with fog, like a gigantic cappucino. Never is she dull.
And when family or friends visit, and you take them “down town” on foot, looking at the architecture, monuments and art works which are at every turn, you know why you live here.
Sipping a cup of coffee in the street while a former Prime Minister walks past on his way to a board meeting at Bullshit Castle (aka POHQ). A politician perches on one of the seats for a meditative smoke while locals look on as they chew the fat over a brew. If Peter Jackson’s got something on the go, then there will be a movie truck parked somewhere shooting some film. Buskers buzz away in the background, and perhaps you’ll get a wind-up from some of the street theatre associated with the Festival of the Arts. Tourists off the cruise liners chatter away in their own lingo and peer at maps in the summer.
The peace might be shattered by a protest march down the main streets to Parliament, or by Victoria University students following a pipe band in their capping parade. Traffic halts for some formal parade of soldiers, sailors or airmen commemorating an important event, and the city takes on the appearance of a garrison town with military uniforms at every turn.
Wellington is a town with heart. Its a living, working, capital city with all the attendant baggage of modern day life. There’s malcontents, troublemakers, burglars and muggers like any other big town. But there’s even more Wellingtonians to balance the equation – people who care and love the place.
And more of those Wellingtonians are writing about its history. Full marks to NZ Post in Tawa for prominently displaying “The Streets of Tawa” by Bruce Murray right beside the tills. This Tawa Historical Society publication is just out, and is the perfect stocking-filler for giving to local bookworms.
And that reminds me – I haven’t yet bought Clyde Quay School’s historical calendar for next year. Where would we be without these people who are preserving our past and bringing it alive?
Windy Wellie – it’s Home.