Musings from a Small City

Prologue

Some people start with a welcome back messgae, others with an introduction or an ‘About Me’ page. Well, I consider this my prologue. I’m publishing a new photo every day on my blog, taking stock of what it is I love so much about my own backyard. Why? …. because Jacinda Ardern told me too! She didn’t really, but you’ll need to continue reading below to find out how that came about.

I

It was a cold and windy Sunday afternoon in early November, 1978 when I arrived in Dunedin. It was Guy Fawkes and soon the air was to be filled with all sorts of lights and noises that would make it hard to get a 2 year old to sleep. 

That year across the world John Travolta and the Bee Gees had set dances floors alight with the disco hit Saturday Fever; the Sex Pistols had decided that after making one album playing together wasn’t fun anymore and split up, while across Europe at the Vatican, Pope Paul VI passed away after spending 15 years at the head of the Catholic Chuch.

In New Zealand the population had decreased to 3.1 million with the Prime Minister at the time being Robert Muldoon (this of course was years before he got drunk in parliament and called a snap election, which he lost!). Across the country people had been delighted with the national medal haul of 20 at the Commonwealth Games held in Edmonton – Canada, the band Hello Sailor produced the album of the year and Kawerau crooner John Rowles had been named vocalist of the year. The AM broadcast band had moved from 10 kHz to 9 kHz, a programme called Fair Go was the best information show on TV and the 85th National Chess Championships were held in Tauranga. 

So, while Wellingtonian Craig Laird was winning the crowning glory of the New Zealand Chess world, a Dunedin man called Cliff Skeggs was starting his second year as Mayor of the southern city. That year the spring temperatures in Dunedin had fluctuated between extremes, this was something I was to find out much later was actually quite normal. Heading towards the end of spring that year, Dunedin had been cool and wet, however, the local trolley buses continued to rattle with prams precariously perched on the front and at the local supermarket you could purchase a kilogram of Ham Steaks for $4.50, three 750ml bottles of Coke for $1 and a head of lettuce for 35c. That November in town Hallensteins had a sale on men’s stubbies that featured a half elastic back, 1 hip pocket and came in colours of white, green and brown or fawn for only $5.99. The once popular Tuck-Inn Burger on Princess Street went into receivership. That year it would hail on Christmas Eve and snow on Good Friday in 1979.

All of this, I wasn’t aware of as being only 22 months old, mastering the art of walking and talking were much more pressing issues in my life up to that present point in time.  The move my family made from Auckland that November day I was quite oblivious too and while I didn’t know it at the time, it would affect my life most wonderfully in the years to come. 

I mention all of this because I recently found myself once again experiencing the same sense of wonderment as if I was taking Dunedin in for the first time. You see, back in March 2020, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, New Zealand shut its international borders to anyone who wasn’t a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident. Since then they have rarely been open and we have all been forced to take our holidays locally. Even the Prime Minister urged us all to ‘see our own backyard.’ 

I assumed she meant this figuratively and not literally. The possibilities started to spark in my mind. I could explore and experience Dunedin, reconnecting with its identity with all the fascination of a tourist while feeling all the comforts and insider knowledge of a local. I could write and photograph about my own backyard. After all, the Prime Minister had told me to do so and it didn’t seem right to argue with her. I would call it Jacinda’s Law.  I particularly liked the idea of rediscovering all the nooks and crannies of Dunedin that I had forgotten about. I would set myself  the challenge of posting a new photo every day on my blog from my beloved home. I also liked the thought of being able to answer people when they asked me why I was doing it. I would adjust my gaze over the horizon and say with a look of thoughtful confusion ‘because Jacinda told me too’.

II

I like Dunedin, it’s one of the few cities in the world where you can walk down the main street in your pajamas and be slightly overdressed. 

I’d spent the last wee while in Wellington, where amongst other things I’d poked myself in the eye taking off my mask, accidentally ordered a vegetarian breakfast and nearly knocked over an entire row of bookshelves in Whitcoulls during a momentary loss of equilibrium. However, now it was time to return home and so it was that I found myself re-entering Dunedin on an Air New Zealand Flight on a fine and settled Saturday afternoon. 

It seemed quite prophetic to be returning to Dunedin, I had set myself the goal of publishing a new photo every day on my blog for a year and now as the reality of the task settled upon me, I wasn’t even sure I had time for it. Yet, I arrived at Dunedin Airport, eager to reconnect with what it is I love so much about this place I call home.

III

Once you’ve lived in Dunedin for a while, there are certain assumptions about the place that you just come to accept. One is that it’s cold and raining all the time with absolutely no distinction between winter and summer. Another is that there really isn’t much to do and yet another is that the students are always drunk and if you leave a couch unattended on Castle Street and it magically transforms into a smoldering pile of ash, you’ve got no-one to blame but yourself. 

If you mention to anyone north of the Waitaki River that you plan on spending some time in Dunedin, you’ll inevitably find yourself in a conversation that includes the words drab, cold and ordinary. You’ll find yourself being advised to pack a rain jacket, an extra layer of clothing and maybe spend some time visiting Central Otago. 

Personally, I take a different view. I find it a place of wonder, curiosity and energy. Yes, it can be cold at times but you don’t live in Dunedin for the weather. There’s a warmth to the city that is all together pleasant with an unwritten charm. Or, as the city’s Scottish founders might say, ‘it’s a bonnie wee place.’ It’s a place that celebrates the Bagpipes, Kilts, Haggis and Oatcakes. There are traditional Scottish Whisky Bars, an annual celebration to poet Robbie Burns and plenty of street names that have been taken from the Scottish Capital City. It even has its own tartan! And if that isn’t worth celebrating, I don’t know what is! 

I recently had arrived home from my summer holidays, and now considering myself a local tourist, I set about planning how on earth I was going to post a new photo every day on my blog for an entire year in an effort to rediscover what it is I love so much about Dunedin. I had camera gear to check, Spotify playlists to adjust and just enough time left in the day to walk to the Dunedin wharf and Steamer Basin.

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