Saturday, January 22, 2005

Kingdom of the bland

Apathy Jack writes:

Every year or so, depending on how the referees score the eternal battle between familial loyalty and apathy, I go down to Feilding, the town where I spent my formative years.

This time, going alone, I decided the only way to maintain my sanity was to take my notebook.

I figured that, in addition to letting me vent whenever I felt the need, I could come up with the script to Deliverance II, which I see as being a nice little earner...


Walking from the train station I feel little of the animosity that I have felt on past visits. Maybe I am stereotyping this place, being unduly patronising to the town. Surely it’s not the redneck backwater I stereotype it as.

Then I walk past the house with the horse in the front yard and decide to go with my old instincts.

I see some local graffiti, reading simply ‘Westside’. I wonder what constitutes the west side of a town you can circumnavigate in twenty minutes. Arriving in my grandparents’ street, an ambitious realtor has labeled a house ‘desirable west side property’. So the taggers are representing the five hundred meter pensioner-filled street of my octogenarian grandparents? Gangstas these days, I don’t know...

The next graffiti I come across is smudged, but seems to read simply ‘thorp’.

Now, I don’t care if you are the meanest OG in all of nearby Bunnythorpe (the town that even Feilding residents make fun of for being hicksville), you’re not cruising the mean streets of the ‘Thorpe...


As I wander the next day reacquainting myself with the streets, an old reflex makes me look for signs of familiarity of those that I pass. It’s been fourteen years since I lived here, and probably about ten since I last saw an even vaguely recognisable face, but you know...

Every single person my age has a kid in tow.

The most depressing aren’t the ones pushing prams. The most depressing are the ones pushing prams with seven or eight year olds pottering along next to them.


Several years ago, the Council redecorated the town square and mounted a massive campaign of civic pride, so I find myself seeing an increasing number of signs that declare shops to be ‘Proudly Feilding owned and operated.’

You want something to be proud of? Get a bookshop that has more books than calendars. Get a single music shop for gods sake. Hell, an internet cafĂ© wouldn’t go amiss either, while we’re dragging the town kicking and screaming into the twentieth century.

One segment of the square is paved with bricks inscribed with the names of sponsors. Some names belong to local businesses, some to families. Some are clearly epitaphs.

Then I come across the one that reads simply: “First white birth in Feilding 1874”

Now, as much as I dismiss the whole ‘decolonisation’ movement, I am acutely aware that you wouldn’t find such an announcement in Auckland, and this sentiment seems most alien to me.


I make a point of going to McDonalds whenever I’m in Feilding, partly because I’m a consumerist whore, but also to make up for my deprived childhood – the golden arches only came to town a few years after I left.

The surly teenaged drone that hands over my hotcakes looks just as happy as the next McDonalds employee I know (which, to be fair, is my shockingly bitter and increasingly socially dysfunctional McFlatmate) so I start to think again that I may have judged Feilding unfairly; places are places and people are people – surely I’m just being snobbish in viewing Feilding in such a negative light.

And I find myself thinking of my friends who stayed here after I left.

Over the years I’ve met quite a number of people born in Feilding who left in their teens to come to the city. All have said to me that they got out just in time, that, had they stayed another year would have been trapped in some dead end life which they never got around to leaving.

For a while I wondered if this was legitimate, but then I saw old friends systematically beaten down by this town, turning into their parents – living small dead lives and failing to question why they’ve become what they swore they’d never be.

I don’t talk to my old friends anymore.


I go the local park to look at the aviary.

Years ago, we had a cockateel. After a while, we noticed he was getting huffy and moody at certain times. After a while, we saw that he was building a nest, and had separated the corn kernals out of his birdseed, and was nesting, trying to hatch them.

Eventually, we gave him to this aviary, which had a special ‘asylum’ enclosure for insane birds, the most notable of which was a peacock that had been abandoned as an egg. A chicken has sat on and hatched said egg, and now the peacock thought the chicken was its mother, and would try to shelter under the (now much smaller) bird whenever it rained.

Last news had our former pet settling into wedded bliss with another male cockateel and trying to hatch anything vaguely egg shaped to complete the family.

I cast an eye around the aviary, knowing that all of the birds of my time will be long since gone. Then I see a bird, and for the life of me, I can’t tell what it is.

Looking at it closer, the thing looks exactly like a half chicken half peacock. I examine it closer trying to disprove my theory, but I just become more convinced.

Genuinely creeped out, I move quickly along.

Looking from the park I see nearly a dozen teenagers desperately huddled around the newly created skate ramp. I can see why; it’s the only non-date-rape related form of entertainment this town has seen since the previous, smaller, half-pipe fell into unusable disrepair almost ten years ago.


I go out to the orchard behind my grandparents’ house. This, and the orchard behind it, belonging to some never-witnessed neighbour whose house was hidden behind dense trees, was where my cousins and I used to play.

The orchard my grandfather is still tending to – depression-era work ethic overcoming the fear if not the fact of the frequent falls he’s been suffering of late – is mostly as it always has been, but the neighbouring orchard is overgrown.

I hop the fence, and wade through knee-deep grass to the tree line.

My cousins and I used to have this as our hideout. While the world at large assumed we were in the clubhouse our grandfather built, we were really in a specific section of this miniature bush, doing nothing so much as reveling in our own sense of conspiracy.

The bush is so overgrown with creepers and brambles that I can’t get into the body of it – not even the old path that used to connect the orchard to the neighbour’s house.

I stand there for a few minutes taking this in, and all I can think over and over is “Damn, what a great place to be a kid.”


I have to say, it would be a lot easier to like this godforsaken town if every freaking trip recently didn’t seem to involve a trip to Palmerston North Hospital for an infirm grandparent.

This time it’s to have tests done on my grandfather, who has been falling over a lot for no discernable reason in the last couple of months.

You know, so far I’m seeing bugger all good advertisements for getting old.

The three grandparents I have known in my life have always been the sturdiest most physically able old people I have come across – Not for them such things as walking sticks or dementia.

But helping my grandfather – who this time last year was stronger than me despite being fifty-six years my senior – out of the bath after he has fallen and is unable to right himself, well, it reminds me of how frail my Grandmother looked in the hospice last Christmas when I saw her for the last time. Even if you can carry your strength and your intellect into your eighties, sooner or later your body will betray you.


There is something very peaceful about the emergency ward waiting room at Palmerston North Hospital – primarily the fact that it’s completely empty. It stands in pleasant contrast to the revolving door of pain that is its Auckland counterpart.

As I sit, soaking in the peace, a fire alarm pierces the quiet. However, when you work at a school, a fire alarm isn’t so much a warning of impending emergency as it is a sign that the students are bored again (the one fire we’ve had at school in my tenure didn’t set off any alarms, and I only found out about it because some of my students who had been in the room that caught fire got bored waiting for the class to become inhabitable, and came to visit me...) so my first reaction is to continue with what I was doing.

As at school, this proves to be the right course of action, as the alarm stops after a minute or so.

A few moments later a voice comes over the intercom announcing that there will be a fire alarm test shortly.

And these are the people to whom I am entrusting the health of my last remaining grandfather...


Watching TV later that night and a friend of my Nana’s calls to say her husband has passed away.

My grandparents comfort the woman with the sort of polished routine that comes from experience, which is possibly the most depressing thing I’ve seen in my life.


Walking down my grandparents’ street on my last night there, when, echoing over the horizon, I hear the guitar-heavy strains of loudly played rock music. Given my proclivity for loudly played rock music, I once again feel I’ve been harsh in my judgement of this town; places with people are places with people – it is patronising and silly to stereotype Feilding as a backwater hillbilly town.

Then I see the dead possum in the gutter.

It’s no good. Feilding just can’t help it.

Listening closer I identify the music as being The Offspring.

Nope, no sign of intelligent life.

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