In October Grahame Sydney delivered the Otago University’s ‘Michael King Memorial Lecture’ to a crowd of over 250. Entitled ‘Regionalism Forever: Reflections on my Backyard’ the lecture was dedicated to the memory of artist Don Binney. Read the full lecture here.
Michael King Memorial Lecture, Otago University. “Regionalism Forever : Reflections on my Backyard.” 04 October 2012.
At the outset I want to dedicate this talk to the memory of my friend and colleague, Don Binney, who died far too soon a couple of weeks ago, and who would have taken a real interest in this topic tonight.
I must now move to the topic Tony Ballantyne and I agreed on, this “Regionalism Forever.”
When the Chandris line’s Greek tourist ship “ Ellenis” pulled away from Auckland’s international wharf in January 1973, loaded with hundreds of young Kiwis and Australians – and me – bound for Southampton and the Real World, my mother was on that wharf, weeping and waving until there was no longer a ship to see.
I was a bit upset myself, believing as I did then that I might never see her or Dad again : the idea of today’s fast, cheap flights making that 18,000km journey a simple, almost tedious dash was hardly credible then, and our sea voyage to England took a full month – and, by the way, cost me all of $300.
Few knew, because I fortunately kept it to myself, but I was on my way to London to become a famous painter, and I had no plans to return, unless in fabulous wealth and triumph. There was no realistic prospect of becoming any of those – a famous painter, fabulously wealthy, or triumphant – here at home in the early 1970s : we had amateur Art Societies, and art shops and framers with English reproductions on the walls rather than dealers, and the only full-time painters (apart from the suave and dashing ex -War Artist, Peter McIntyre) were four or five making a decent living peddling repetitive, semi-impressionistic post-card views of the Southern Alps and lakes to tourists. I was determined never to be one of them. I had much more lofty dreams.
Within a couple of hours of leaving Mum on the wharf, sea-sickness hit me like an upper-cut, and while the rest of my mates set about making the most of the remarkably loose and hedonistic, lawless delights of ship-board life, I lay miserably below decks in the darkness of my cabin, wishing I was dead.
At least I thought then it was sea-sickness. In the years to follow I have wondered if it was more probably early-onset home-sickness : the first, dreadful premonition that in sailing away from everything I knew and loved most, I was making a terrible mistake.
Over the next eighteen months in England and Ireland and on the Continent, it became perfectly clear I was in the wrong place.
Where others on their formative OE found fun, and opportunity, and freedom, and challenge, and rewards, I was poor, sullen, and far from happy. My previous obsessive need to paint had vanished, all ambition flushed away down the loo of my Cabin on “Ellenis.”
But it surely was gone, and so were my dreams of recognition and artistic triumph. I pressed my nose against the glass of art dealers’ windows in central London and felt nothing – no envy, no challenge. No wishes. Just nothing.
Instead I worked as a furniture removal man, taught primary and comprehensive school, I sat on a high chair life-saving at a new swimming pool in Tottenham, I slogged in the mud of an Irish dairy farm for my sins, and pretty much loathed the lot of it.
I could feel the depth of history, appreciate it in the architecture, observe it in the class system, see it in the manicured landscapes…. But despite all that, despite my pilgrimage to the East End house in which my father had spent his childhood, I felt uneasily disconnected. I felt like a tourist, a foreigner. Which I was. My heart wasn’t there. It didn’t mean anything to me.
No meaning, no connection. Little wonder my painting hand was paralysed.
Like the ancient cliché, I travelled miles to discover the obvious –and in the solitary joylessness of a tiny London bedsitter my recurrent, haunting dreams of the shimmering, sunburned, silent Maniototo Plains served to remind me almost nightly that I had to swallow my pride, abandon the misguided dream and simply go home.
It was through the contrast of living in London in my early twenties that I recognised the full, inextricable depth of my anchoring here in this landscape south of the Waitaki, in this Province of my Dreaming.
Where my London days seemed to be sombre, oppressive, clouded and grey, memory dished me up Central Otago’s vast majestic blue skies, faint feathers of high altitude cirrus clouds, and the pale apricot and pinks of distant horizons at dusk; – London’s incessantly tense, irritable traffic through which I drove my red Instant Van in my removal-man days made me yearn for the open, empty, meandering delights of the Pig Root, on which one could drive for 80 kilometres and seldom see another car; – the city streets and uncomfortably stuffy, grimey Underground were a constant assault of people, a surging cosmopolitan torrent of strangers, and I longed for the glorious emptiness of Dunedin’s beaches and peninsula, or the bliss of fishing at Lake Hayes or on the Upper Taieri, or sitting painting on my own at Gimmerburn with just a patrolling hawk lazing on the warm breath of the late afternoon; – the famous Father Thames, for so many centuries the great city’s major artery and life-source was a thick and filthy, sluggish brown river – almost laughably opposite to the transparent azure of the Upper Clutha above Cromwell where I’d spent so many summer nights fishing alone, my back to the willows, the water-worn stones on the bottom easily visible almost to the other side, the dark trout flicking out of shadows; – London’s depressing drizzle and rains were a world away from the fond recollection of the deep-heat sun burning my back as we kids slathered ourselves in coconut oil and worked on our competitive tans day after day gold-panning up the Arrow River every summer holidays, cursing our peeling skin – not through any fear of melanoma : that was never mentioned when I was young, but simply because peeling meant less tan of which to boast when school began again in February.
I watched the British class system in action every day, felt insulted to be frequently ignored as an inferior, was astonished at the uselessness of individuals who needed to hire a man to shift a chest of drawers from one room to another; I was disgusted to be told that as a life-guard at the new Tottenham Pool I was not to help the big, grinning, cheerful chap who came in every day so keen to learn how to swim, and I knew it was because he was West Indian. There would be no such attitude at home; where I came from we did things ourselves, and if we didn’t know how, we tried to learn so we didn’t have to ask others all the time. And there were no black men to be seen.
Finally there was the inescapable green. England and Ireland were nothing if not green. Green parks and green grass and green pastures and green hedgerows and green rolling hills and green bloody trees, and as a painter I have always disliked green.
Effective contrast indeed.
Though it didn’t feel like much of a positive to me at the time, I see now that I was learning one of the most vital of lessons : I was learning where I came from. And I was learning where I belonged.
Two thousand years ago the Roman poet Ovid wrote :
“By what charm I know not the native land draws all men, nor allows them to forget her.”
The native land drew me home in May of 1974, and I returned if not totally confident of my personal singularity, at least certain of my cultural identity. Arriving back I instantly recognised the smell of the air that I had missed so much; was surprised to find that there really was such a thing as a New Zealand quality of light, so bright and sharp after the grey, misty softness of Britain; even the soil under my feet felt right.
As Michael King so eloquently put it writing in 2000, I could feel that this South Island was “ part of the very marrow of my bones,” that I “knew its history and landscape and seascape and flora and fauna in a breadth and depth like I knew no other” – and, importantly, I had no wish any more to know any other.
I had come home, encouraged by my parents, to try to be the painter I’d embarrassingly failed to be on the other side of the planet. I wanted to paint the things I loved, the landscapes which had filled my dreams, the things I had missed so much during that 18 month absence, paint to try to give permanent form to my feelings, paint to explore exactly what it was I had learned about myself and my corner of the world, to see if I could find a way of doing justice to both that nurturing landscape, and to myself in all my mysterious individuality and oddity.
Thus, apparently, I became a “Regionalist”.
The Regionalist label has frequently been pinned to my work – more often than not, of course, in a dismissive, disparaging manner.
Those commentators employ the term in its academic, historical sense which originated in America’s Depression-era , the 1930s, and was a clearly defined, conservative, essentially mid-Western rural school of artists determined to extol the virtues of country life, and oppose city-life values and the city-based modernism and abstraction which was prevailing on both coasts of the USA at the time.
American Regionalism’s leading light was Grant Wood – best known for his painting “American Gothic,” which incidentally used as its models his sister and his dentist posing as humourless farmer father and anxious daughter. Wood himself adopted the rustic persona in a very calculated, deliberate manner, down to the blue farmer’s overalls he somewhat pretentiously wore almost everywhere.
He also wrote a manifesto of Regionalism in 1935 called “Revolt Against the City,” which gives you some idea of its political location.
I don’t consider myself that sort of Regionalist at all. I hope like hell I’m not !
But I cheerfully accept that I am deeply attached to one particular region, that most of my paintings are indeed focused on a definable district, and a palpable sense of place.
I’ve never worked with a political motive, and the only “hidden” message is that this is me, this is the curious individual I find myself to be, and these are the things, the places, the people I love. These are the things I care about, the things I want to draw attention to, to remember. Even if they seem to be banal and ordinary to others, these are what I find mysterious, and beautiful, and my hope is that by making them permanent through my art, their ordinariness might be elevated into something more interesting, more worthy of our respect and care and remembering. Hoping too, that they might reveal something about me.
While most of my works are ostensibly about a place, they also function as a visual diary, what Owen Marshall has called “the archaeology of my life,” and are as much about my internal state as anything geographic or real. Place and self hand-in-hand.
Put simply, my paintings come out the way they do because I am like this, I cannot help it; and because I love this place so much, and feel I belong to it, and it echoes through me, I try to give permanent form to my feelings for its beauty and separate, unique characteristics.
If with those conditions attached the Regionalist label still works, then I don’t mind.. On the artistic side at least. A few doubts linger…..
But I have no doubts at all about my belief in the importance and appropriateness of Regionalism when the discussion turns to matters economic and environmental, and even to politics.
When it comes to defending the distinctive and irreplaceable features of this Otago landscape from the inappropriate effects of “growth” and “progress,” I am a paid-up Regionalist, and I am a fervent “Nimby” because to me “nimbyism” is nothing more than a desire to preserve those points of difference, those points of pride and special, separate character. Recognising the qualities which make a landscape, or culture, or behaviour unique is, at its heart a positive force for the protection of local identity. Its what makes a place interesting, surely ?
The “Nimby” badge is one I wear with pride, because at heart I believe those who know a local environment best are best equipped to understand its character and needs, and to defend them against unacceptable exploitation or damage.
It occurs to me that possibly the most effective expression of so-called “nimbysim” is the Maori concept of iwi : wherein through ancestral connection and long association with a particular region or discernible geographic territory, a history of knowledge and understanding accumulates and is vigorously defended against detrimental incursion or abuse.
Think of the pride the Tuhoe people feel for their specific tribal lands – a sense of identity and attachment taken to the point of determined separatism.
I understand that, and appreciate the reasons for that stance.
Mentioning separatism there, I often think these days that it is an idea with considerable merit. It did have an earlier, brief life in Otago – in the 1860s, and was a very popular cause for a couple of years then, mainly in protest against the taxes being levied by Central Government on Southern citizens to help pay for the land wars in the North.
The Separationist movement in the 1860s collapsed primarily because those living inland didn’t trust Dunedin’s politicians to do right by them. They preferred to stick with the devil they knew in Central Government. I wonder if they’d come to the same conclusion today?
Most of us are well aware of the growing separation between the North and South Islands – the North has always looked different, of course, and any true South Islander , when setting foot on northern soil knows that this is nothing like home. But the separation is gaining speed, and is noticeable in its cultural and community differences too, primarily as a result of recent Polynesian and Asian immigration, which has not been seen to the same degree in the South.
This feeling of growing separation leads to an increasing sense of the disenfranchisement of the Southern voice in political representation, an anxiety that the South is being asked to contribute more than its fair share; and sometimes the unfairness, the injustice of that does find expression in protest.
The Save Manapouri campaign was a successful uprising of a small team of southern loyalists and defenders, which fortunately went nationwide. The later Save Aramoana campaign, the opposition to Meridian’s transformative Project Aqua on the Waitaki, and I guess our own Save Central’s stand against the monstrous industrialisation of the Lammermoors, Project Hayes, were all efforts by very small groups of disenchanted locals – Regionalists at heart – who saw an injustice they could not accept, and organised against it.
Imagine if these activists had never risen from their comfortable couches and done the hard, often personally expensive and exhausting work : how much irreplaceable natural wilderness would have been submerged at Manapouri ? Would any of the Waitaki River be left in a natural state ? Would Aramoana already be the site of an unwanted, uneconomic, unsightly and abandoned aluminium smelter – just as Tiwai Point is destined to be ?
The small team at Save Central didn’t beat Meridian, it merely held up Meridian’s ill-prepared stampede into the Outstanding Natural Landscape of the desolate Lammermoors long enough for wiser heads to prevail in Wellington, and eventually make the right decision.
The newly-installed CEO of Meridian Energy took one look at the Project Hayes proposal and decided it should be dropped because as he said – and we had said all along – it “ just didn’t stack up” financially.
It’s happy demise left us cynical, though, about the integrity of the many “expert witnesses” and corporate spokesmen who had for several years brow-beaten both the general public here in the South, and the Environment Court too, with their “professional” convictions of not only the windfarm’s economic viability, but its immense, long-term benefit to the region – an argument the local Council in Alexandra happily swallowed, against the recommendations of their own Consultant Planner and the Chairman of their own consenting panel.
Meridian’s boss had the guts to say, “No. Its all off. We got it wrong.”
So did a few others, it seems.
Had it not been for the small and hopelessly underfunded Save Central opposition, today that project would likely have been under construction, permanently mutilating the treeless, tussock expanses of the Lammermoor Plateau, and destined to fail on every count – a mistake for which every consumer would ultimately pay.
( Reminds me of a certain stadium…… at least Mr Binns at Meridian had the courage to admit the mistake! )
Our little group is proud we helped prevent that desecration of what we consider to be a priceless, magnificent landscape, by a totally inappropriate and fatally flawed industrial development.
Our pride in that effort is in inverse proportion to our disgust at the unwillingness of the Department of Conservation to do that job instead of us – directed by Government, DoC took a paltry $180,000 in mediation money for the graveyards of native falcons, and the counting of native fish; but it put no value at all on the loss of visual beauty from its neighbouring Scenic Reserves, or the heritage attached to the Old Dunstan Road. When something is priceless, it is apparently not worth defending. No dollar value can be applied, so none is lost in that warped equation.
The local Regional Council supported Project Hayes enthusiastically, together with the Central Otago District Council, despite its very obvious conflict with every aspect of its own “World of Difference” branding campaign.
From their glossy promo brochure I quote : “Last, Loneliest, Loveliest Land….” A nice lesson in alliteration there, team ! But next comes “ Vast, uncompromising beauty, the silence, the exhilaration of solitude….”
Sorry about the 180 wind turbines, everyone. Pity about the compromise. Try not to notice the pylons and the wires and the new roads, and the bigger power bills you’ll be getting.
If you’re going to make these claims and call them your mission statements, you have to have the courage to say no to whatever inappropriate scheme threatens those stated core values.
And saying “No” is apparently very difficult. One runs the awful risk of being denigrated as, God forbid, a Nimby…….
If past experience is the greatest teacher, then the Project Hayes experience taught me several lessons : amongst them that one should expect from the “communications” and “ public relations” departments of these large corporate organizations an unashamed strategy of media manipulation through half-truths and opinion-masquerading-as-fact – an integral part of the sales strategy.
This dishonesty also extends to some civic leaders, who practice a kind of sly deception and hypocrisy in their attempts to be all things to all people, but whose fundamental lack of moral courage is disgraceful. As Frank Lloyd Wright once noted, “The truth is more important than the facts.”
I learned, too, that with only rare exception, the general public in this country is careless and passive and won’t get off its collective backside to oppose or protest : that work is almost always done by a small coterie of loyal and often angry locals who sense an injustice and rise up against it.
These “nimby” acitivists usually face the hard lesson that few others really care enough to bother.
To the considerable satisfaction of politicians and corporations alike, NZers are a worryingly passive people. I can’t count the number of times during the windfarm fight I was told “ We would like to help, but you’re not going to win, so its pointless.”
The obvious response to that fatalism is, of course, “No, its not pointless !!! You can change things ! You can win !!!”
But perhaps most distressing of all lessons learned was that the Resource Management Act is an insult to my belief that I belong to this land. In its present form the RMA makes provision for the Environment Court to give weight and special consideration to Maori spiritual values attached to land, but none whatever for those of us who call this land our own, and have done for generations, but who are not deemed to be “indigenous.”
Despite my strong sense of belonging, despite my ancestral connections to this place, despite my emotional history here, under this RMA legislation I am permitted no recognised spiritual feelings for my landscape – at least none to which the Court is required to give due weight. In law I am not indigenous enough.
My feelings for a place are given no weight at all. They are, therefore, weightless. In Court they are fairy dust.
Michael King wrote in that same essay in 2000 of his distress at the words of the then Minister of Treaty Settlements, Douglas Graham, who stated that “Maori had spiritual feelings for lakes and mountains and rivers that Pakeha people neither shared nor understood,” and, Michael said, that the Minister was simply wrong.
I believe that erroneous viewpoint is still reflected in the Resource Management Act, and that it, too, is wrong.
More: it is offensive to the many “white natives” who belong as I do, and who feel as I do.
But I want to get back to that “World of Difference” idea.
Like so many other well-loved places in this country, Central Otago clearly has a different and identifiable geographic character, easily chartered and easy to define.
In fact New Zealand is blessed with a range of wholly separate regional landscapes quite unparalleled in the world for such a small country : Aotearoa is a virtual jig-saw of differing geographic environments, a vast continent’s worth of distinct landforms and varying ecosystems stuffed into a small pocketbook of three narrow islands.
That “world of difference” applies to a remarkable list of this country’s regions, each quite different to the rest : Fiordland is totally unlike the Bay of Islands. The Volcanic Plateau bears no resemblance whatever to Coromandel or the lush low plains of the Waikato. The Marlborough Sounds could hardly be more unlike the dry plains and stark, rocky ranges of Central Otago. The Southern Lakes stand so far removed from the Canterbury Plains or Southland’s green, undulating pasturelands that they feel like separate countries, and nowhere else can compete with the sheer magnificence of the long, fractured spine of Southern Alps.
Yet these are all contained within a land area half the size of France, and no bigger than Colorado. Little wonder tourists love this place ! Within a few hours and a few hundred k’s they can experience a whole Europe’s worth of landscapes.
That’s the way it used to be, at least. Even when I was growing up it was like that. And that’s the way we like to think of it. But how real is that ? I have fears for that rich and enviable regional diversity now.
I see this country steadily obliterating its landscape diversity and that priceless regional distinction.
From North Cape to Bluff, the once -glorious range of different landscapes is starting to all look the same.
No longer a varied palette of natural colours, New Zealand landscape is today being watered and fertilized and forested into a single monotonous, and frequently artificial green.
What not so long ago was golden, or bleached brown, altering subtly with the seasonal extremes – and had been for thousands of years – is now too often, and too suddenly, year- round chemically-induced, chemically sustained intensive pasture.
For example, the magnificently parched and silent expanses of the Mackenzie Basin are already, at their southern end, being watered by massive centre pivots into a lurid green sward.
“Look out, tussock country – here comes dairying !”
Down near Omarama the corporate agricultural brotherhood pushes to insist on its right to house thousands of dairy cows indoors, with feed freighted for hundreds of kilometres, because the winters are too tough outside.
Where the irrigators have yet to impose their will in the Mackenzie, wilding pines are steadily turning the dry grasslands and tussock into a deep, dull blanket of seasonless evergreen.
In our own Otago, anyone who can remain unmoved and careless about the deliberate pine forestation of the wonderfully sensuous, overlapping spurs of the Lake Onslow tussock high country; and the recently consented 90 hectares of Douglas Fir on Outstanding Natural Landscape of the Lammermoors; or more exotic plantations on the rugged, dessicated hillscapes to the south side of the Pig Root near the Brothers; or the uncontrolled wilding pine infestation of the rocky hills around Alexandra , Earnscleugh, Cromwell and Naseby; or the greening of the Maniototo Plains, just to name a few – anyone who does not deplore such things, who regards these changes as welcome progress, is not possessed of the same heart as me.
These changes are nothing like what nature intended. Some are the result of misguided colonial introductions, some the product of a short-term response to the drum-beat demand for greater productivity, mainly through the demise of the smaller traditional family-line farmer now regrettably displaced by industrial scale corporate amalgamations; some are the result of the simpler clamour for greater personal wealth. I do not accept that a sustainably healthy society nor a healthy economy lies down this more intensive path.
These invasive and wilfull changes are transforming what was once a marvellous range of contrasting landscapes across this nation , into the one homogenous, artificially sustained green which we have been persuaded into believing is the best for the economy, and therefore best for us.
Some even attempt to argue that wilding pines have a value – a dollar value, of course. But even the monopoly money game of the carbon credit market or the collapsing ETS won’t save that.
Green is the proverbial colour of cash, and it is the colour of what our leaders believe to be necessary, desirable progress.
I strongly disagree.
It is instead, I suggest, motivated by our slavish obedience to the doomed Gods of Economic Growth and Increased Production, and GDP measures which have nothing at all to do with individual, community or ecological well-being, and the outcome is the deliberate obliteration of regional distinctions and identity.
It will lead to the inevitable degradation of soil and water quality and environmental health on which we all ultimately depend, to the detriment of all future generations,
It may be pure nostalgia, but I am watching frustrated as the golden Central Otago of my dreams becomes, not a “World of Difference,” but a green region just like all the others. The paintings I did thirty years ago, or only twenty, sometimes just ten, are already looking like a different place – a place we used to know and love for its uniqueness. People still come to Central Otago hoping for that difference, but it is fast disappearing or in some cases has already gone forever. I was going to say “gone for good,” but that would be an unfortunate phrase in the circumstances.
I fear the same might be said of nearly every province.
There are parts of this country which Nature decreed ought to be dry, ought to be golden, or yellow, or bleached brown. And of course, some parts are naturally green, naturally lush.
But to deliberately transform them all into the same palette as the wet Waikato, or naturally damp Southland, is simply wrong, and no economics will persuade me otherwise. Dry riverbeds are sad testament to the short-sighted foolishness of water allocation regimes throughout the South Island, giving away the water we are all supposed to own.Those stoney beds are just small part of the price we will finally pay.
I mustn’t bang on too loudly and come across as an enemy of the pastoral brotherhood : many of them do farm sustainably and work with Nature’s limitations very sensitively, with long term vision and no selfish urge to get more than their fair share. And I have many friends amongst their number – at least I did have, until tonight.
But unless courageous steps are taken at all levels of government to protect and preserve the natural contrasts between Regions, it won’t be long before there is precious little difference between Otago and everywhere else, and it’ll be nigh on impossible to find points of regional distinction to promote and defend.
If we are to preserve the unique landscapes we love, and which make us feel and understand the specialness of where we belong, we must begin to better recognise and value qualities and outcomes which are not necessarily proven in monetary gain alone. Profit is not sufficient a justification. There has to be acceptance of a concept of worth in terms which are not just monetary, and somewhere along the line everyone has to accept that change personally, and accede to it with pride, and long view into the future.
The very admirable poet and writer Wendell Berry has put it better than me, saying he does not regard GDP or the nation’s economic balance sheet as the ultimate justifier and explainer of all the affairs of our daily life. So much of what I value and want to guarantee for the enjoyment of future generations is beyond the reach of simple market valuation.
We have to stop regarding Nature as nothing but a resource, the cold terminology which reduces it to a mere commodity capable of being turned into money. In recent years there has been a telling tendency to even reduce people to that same “resource” label : how many institutions now boast a “Human Resources” department ? Human lives as mere commodity.
It worth remembering that the original derivation of the word “resource” comes from the Latin word meaning “ to rise again” implying a constant, dependable supply or perpetual renewability. A sensible economy would strive to guarantee that constant renewability say, of the soils, the water and the air, and the welfare of the local communities which manage them.
But the word now means the reverse : it now suggests “ something that can be used to advantage, something that has no value until turned into something else and sold, or plundered for profit.” For example, a tree has no value unless it can be felled and turned into a saleable commodity – timber, wood chips, or pulp. And landscapes, which can mean so much to so many, have no value in this resource equation unless they contain something from which profit can be made.
The danger in the prevailing philosophy which regards every landscape, regardless of Nature’s obvious intentions for it, to be transformed into something economically viable, is that the unique, unusual and separate landscapes with which we are singularly blessed in this country will end up ploughed and plundered, trimmed, tamed, shaved and artificially manicured, or even worse , gouged and mined – and finally undistinguishable, each from the other.
The present rationale driving these changes is Progress and Economic Growth, but I believe we have to set those false gods aside and return to a smaller, more local – more regional – economy, taking real care of our natural resources, not exhausting them forever, living more modestly within Nature’s means , and putting first the welfare of our local communities and the unique character of our own places. Minding our own back yards, in other words.
Perpetual Growth is logically impossible : sustainability and maintenance will have to replace it.
Immediate return on investment, and short-term profit are surely now discredited goals – but are we changing anything? How many today really make decisions to primarily benefit the generations to come?
Regionalism is essentially the opposite of Globalization and Free Trade. Those callous models are doomed, because the natural resources and easy debt on which they depend are rapidly coming to an end. Within my own lifetime I expect to see a welcome return to the pre-industrial model of greater self-sufficiency and smaller scale, localized manufacture and trade. Regionalism returns, in other words. Fortess New Zealand !
In the best of worlds, the changes will come not through small, angry, single-issue activists protesting this or that travesty, but will be led by local Councils acting upon the clearly expressed wishes of their constituents, using the powers they have been granted through the ability to write their own District Schemes : individuals first, local government next, central Government then responding to regional pressure. I see no sign that the will exists for the movement to be in the other direction.
We have to have the courage to move beyond what Herman Daly called “the dominant idolatry of short-term consumerism.” Its not so dreadful – in fact, as Richard Heinberg has made clear, it is the way people lived before the industrial and resources revolution just 200 years ago.
It could be an even better place than this. Many wise people recognize that the endless growth of consumption is not the same as quality of life, and that the relentless push for economic growth has only made more people less happy – consumption in the end does not equal contentment.
I read a lovely piece recently about we humans, discussing the phenomenon that we alone amongst the species can contemplate our future, and have a concept of death. The telling statement was made that “life is a flicker of consciousness between two great silences.”
Two great silences. We do not get out of this alive, of course.
We are not owners: we are merely passing caretakers, and cannot continue to treat Nature as an expendable commodity. What is taken from Nature must be returned.
We must hold to a vision of we want our landscapes to mean and look like to our faraway, unknown descendants, how we can help our communities function more fairly, and find ways to ensure these essential things can be sustained.
And we must demand that that vision be fulfilled, with courage and pride. We owe that to this magnificent planet, and those who follow us.
I have to finish now – in fact I probably should have finished ages ago. But I can’t step down from this podium tonight without commenting on a local matter marginally related to my topic, but also dear to my heart.
I have lived a large proportion of my life in Dunedin. It is the city of my birth, my mother’s birth, and her father’s birth in 1888, and I appreciate its role in helping shape me, and establishing my sense of self.
One of the things which has intrigued me in recent decades is Dunedin’s strange tendency to pretend that it is a large city, when by all measures – except by comparing it to Milton, or Mataura for example – it is not large at all.
100,000 residents is about the size of an average suburb in London, yet Dunedin persists in its expectations that it deserves the trappings of far larger international cities. This is a nonsense, and gives rise to some very stupid decisions by the authorities, as you well know.
In terms of Regional distinction, point of difference, I believe the greatest advantage Dunedin has, and the quality its leaders should be encouraging and promoting with confidence and enthusiasm, and stimulating incentives, is its Victorian and Edwardian built heritage. No other city can point to as many fine examples of colonial architecture and Victorian splendour as Dunedin, starting with the magnificence of the bluestones – the Railway Station, Law Courts and University clocktower building, trickling all the way down to the ornate facades of many old main street banks and shops on Princes Street, and extending to some of the gorgeous Victorian homes built on the hills during the Province’s most successful decades.
Encouraging the restoration of many of the remaining heritage buildings, and promoting the deliberate inclusion of bluestone elements in new buildings ( as opposed to the plague of appalling tilt-slab cheapies ) would greatly enhance Dunedin’s appeal and attraction in the coming decades. A beautification of the ghastly concrete gutter which is the Leith in front of the University clocktower wouldn’t go astray, either.
But whoever welcomes a monumentally charmless 28-storied glass filing cabinet smack in the line of sight between the city and the Peninsula, far higher than any other building in the city, unrelieved by any attempt at architectural originality or interest, and hideously inappropriate to the essential heritage character of the city, needs to be unceremoniously frogmarched out of this town.
If an ex-student of this University feels so strongly about her time here that she wants to engineer a lasting gift to the city, someone should inform her that grafting a sample of Singapore’s barren and soul-less contemporary commercial architecture onto this city’s reclaimed foreshore is a gift the place would be infinitely better without.
And promoting it with “artist’s impressions” which bear no relation whatever to the Dunedin I see, is just blatant dishonesty.
Sure, invest in a hotel in the city, if the demand is there; but please please make it something appropriate to the character of this town, and site it in an appropriately attractive location. Unless it is a rare example like the Frank Gehry Museum in Bilbao, or Uzon’s brilliant Opera House in Sydney, no-one comes to see a modern building – and they sure as hell won’t be coming here if this shameful insult to aesthetics is permitted.
Don’t be fooled : talk of the “ economic boost” to the city’s economy is misguided bullshit : this plain monstrosity won’t be the salvation of Dunedin’s flagging economy any more than the stadium is, or the Aramoana Smelter promised to be.
Refuse this so-called gift with good grace, but for God’s sake refuse it. Invest in the Victorian heritage buildings and give this city something no others can match.
Its Regional distinction, and it really matters. There’s no pleasure, no pride, no point in being like all the rest. But you have to believe in it, and it takes courage.
There endeth the rant. Now finally….
In an essay rather fittingly entitled “The Historian and Heritage Issues,” written in 1993, Michael King quotes an English author talking about growing older. When I read it, it sounded very like me, and much of this talk, so I end with it now. He wrote:
“The summers get worse, the music noisier and more senseless, the buildings uglier, the roads more congested, the public transport slower and dirtier, the government sillier and the news more depressing. Good things, glow worms, fantails, accessible forests, good fish and chip shops and girls who enjoy being called beautiful, are slowly withdrawn.
“The process is possibly a merciful one : because when one comes to the end of one’s allotted span in a world so remote from that in which one grew up, such a person is quite content to depart.”
There’s not a ring of truth to that – it’s a deafening, Big Ben clang.
Thank you for your patience and interest tonight. And now at last I can say, “Look ! I walk away !!!”
Grahame Sydney, Cambrian Valley. 2 October 2012