Closed minds and small-town insularity? Look no further than the latte-drinking city elite, says this Kiwi actor.
Here’s the thing about Aucklanders: some of us really believe small-town folk have small minds. Not me, though. I’m definitely not one of those latte-swilling snobs. You say small town, I say salt-of-the-earth. Or that’s what I would have said, if you’d asked me. It’s what I would have said until just recently, when I took a trip down country… and was forced to think again.Let me begin by describing a Gathering I attended a few months ago in Ponsonby. For those who live below the Bombays, or above Waiwera, I’ll clarify: a Gathering is like a House Party, except much Cooler. All around me were dropped crotches and chunky wedges, and lips with more fat on them than the thighs below. I stood and listened and I pretended I already knew what That Guy from the Warriors did to That Girl at That Bar. I was doing pretty damn well, too, until there was a gap in the conversation, and it was patently obvious I was supposed to fill it.
Bugger. I had in fact been daydreaming, wondering whether I’d fed my chickens that morning, but something told me this was not appropriate conversation among the cultural oligarchy. I tried to remember my go-to piece of gossip about a clothing designer (I’d forgotten which one) and a husband, who was either unfaithful, or gay, or both, or something. I wasn’t doing well. Luckily for me, the conversation moved on. As I relaxed, one of the guests asked (with perfect private school pronunciation) for my partner’s whakapapa, and he told them proudly he was from Invercargill. And here’s where things got interesting: they refused to believe him.We were confused. They elaborated. The man they saw in front of them was far too intelligent, too well-spoken, his features too fine to be from small-town Neu Zullin. I was momentarily shocked at the casual, callous condemnation of a city of 50,000 presumably very nice people. But then I told myself off. I looked around the room and remembered the company I kept. These bright bleached smiles, this shining, kale-fuelled skin belonged to the elite of Auckland society: these people were not bound by political correctness, and I neither. Was I not better than that? Did I not know the difference between prejudice and a punch line? And so I joined in with them, and my partner, and laughed along as r’s were rolled. It was a hearty, full-bodied laugh, rather like a Central Otago Pinot. And I made sure to offer to host the next Gathering.
Three weeks later we headed off to Invercargill to meet the family. As I drove through the wide, leafy streets, passing the polite, smiling drivers, I kept saying things like, “this is nice, isn’t it?” I delighted in how great it all was. I met each member of his family, and fell in love with all of them. After each meeting I hopped back into the car and talked about how fantastic they were, how incredible the lives they’d led. And slowly but surely, a growing unease took me by the gut. I didn’t know what was wrong until I named the feeling. It was surprise.
What had I expected to find in Invercargill? A bunch of traumatised sheep and farmers with DNA like curdled porridge? No. Of course not. I’ve been reliably informed I’m not a judgemental person. And yet, I had to admit, I’d expected to find people who were, how to put it, different from those in the Big Smoke. I tried to reassure myself I didn’t think worse, I just thought different. But isn’t it just as bad to assume because someone grew up with a stock-gate, they wouldn’t know about Watergate? Gulp. I thought again about the people I’d met that day. My partner’s mother, a small business owner, fiercely funny and sharp as a tack. His granddad, an 80-year-old ex-stevedore with a beautiful wife and a passion for volunteering. Their city may have been smaller than a suburb in Auckland, but that didn’t make them any less intelligent, idiosyncratic, or interesting.
Having just admitted to myself I was a latent Jafa, I started to hope I was turning a corner: maybe I had just proven there really was no such thing as a small-town mentality. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised I did indeed know people who only looked inwards, whose imagination and empathy were limited to their own tiny slice of the world. These were the real small-town folk, and I knew just where they were hiding: in their perfectly-proportioned Ponsonby living rooms. Here lay people afraid to compare themselves to others, to strip away this season’s clothing to find the real measure of a Kiwi: here were the true hicks. Now, let me be clear: I’m not saying all urbanites are wankers, just as I’m sure there are some thick skulls in Southland. But it was nice to finally figure out there ain’t that much to separate a suit from a Swanndri. And I for one can’t wait to get back to Invers.
From the editors of NEXT