There is no doubt that -- musically speaking -- last summer belonged to Fat Freddy’s Drop. Their album Based on a True Story provided the soundtrack for a seemingly endless succession of sweltering days. By the end of the season, Fat Freddy's Drop had become as evocative of summer as the rasp of cicadas, or the smell of tar melting on hot roads.
In Christchurch you simply couldn't escape Based on a True Story. Bikini-clad girls listened to it as they baked their bodies on New Brighton beach. Sullen teenagers played it on their iPods while slouching along footpaths shimmering with heat. The rhythms of Fat Freddy's Drop blasted from the sound systems of the cars cruising down Colombo street. And in the evening the smooth voice of Joe Dukie seemed to drift from the window of every house in the city.
This year on Midsummer's day the weather in Christchurch wasn't quite so pleasant. Sleet was falling from the sky, and listening to Fat Freddy's Drop seemed somehow unseasonable. I deleted Based on a True Story from my MP3-player, and uploaded We are the L.e.d.s.
If a mad scientist spliced together the genes of The B52s and Thomas Hardy they would produce a creature who makes a noise like The L.e.d.s. They are a band eminently suited to a sleety summer's day in Christchurch. Their wistful electronic songs tend towards melancholy, but with occasional bursts of optimism that feel like the sun coming out from behind clouds. The song Rumba (video here on YouTube) is -- for want of a better description -- positively rumba-matic.
The L.e.d.s stayed at the top of my playlist as we travelled north in search of warmer climes. In Wellington the rain fell horizontally, and my rumba-ness descended to a low ebb. But even in foul weather, Wellington is easily my favourite New Zealand city. I know it's crazy to situate a nation's capital on a fault line, foolish to balance houses on precarious hillsides, and utterly dippy to bung a gigantic concrete beehive in the middle of it all -- but I absolutely adore the place.
I love the staid bustle of Lambton Quay and the Wellington waterfront. I love the trolley buses, and the cable-car to the botanic gardens. I love the green belt that swaddles the city. And I love the commuter rail system -- public transport that actually works! Wellington feels like a proper city: the sort they have in other countries. In comparison, Christchurch and Dunedin are merely towns, and Auckland is just an oversized suburb.
The weather was dreadful in Auckland as well, of course. We got stuck in motorway traffic with rain battering down so hard that it bounced off the road. The L.e.d.s were playing on the car stereo, but my rumba-ness had nearly reached rock bottom.
The next morning the rain had dwindled to occasional showers, and we reacquainted ourselves with the city. Australians visiting Auckland often comment that it looks like an ugly version of Sydney. It's certainly true that Sydney's downtown and waterfront areas are handsome -- just as Auckland's are undeniably shabby. But does Sydney have anything that compares with Auckland's towering volcanic cones? Does Sydney have anything like Rangitoto, or the other sixty-two islands in the Hauraki gulf?
Sydney has a good-looking harbour, but Auckland has two good-looking harbours -- in different oceans! Sydney has beautiful beaches, but not in the same league as the black sands of Piha or Karekare. And Sydney has nothing that is remotely comparable to the spectacular rainforests of the Waitakere ranges.
I grew up in Auckland, and was always astonished by the way that foreign eyes saw the city. As a teenager, a German exchange student told me that visiting Auckland made her feel guilty. "I can see that it must have been badly bombed during the war," she explained seriously. In a similar vein, I once had a memorable conversation with a town-planner from Edinburgh, who was truly appalled by some of Auckland's housing developments. "But, of course, one can't really complain about the town planning in this city," he commented dryly, "because there obviously isn't any."
Having lived away from Auckland for more than a decade, I can now see the city through a foreigner's eyes. It's the bricks and mortar that distract from the inherent beauty of the place. Yes, there are some attractive areas such as Devonport or Titirangi -- but too much of it is simply shopping malls surrounded by dreary characterless suburbs. And, yes, I have to admit that parts do resemble those bombed-out European cities that were rebuilt too quickly and too cheaply after the war.
Auckland's tragedy is not so much what it is -- a dysfunctional hotchpotch of suburbs with a lousy transportation system -- but, rather, that it falls so far short of the great metropolis that it could have been. Given Auckland's natural features it should be the most beautiful city in the world, but it's only mildly pretty at best.
At any rate, at least Auckland's architecture has the virtue of making Christchurch look good by comparison. As we drove home from the airport I found myself pleasantly surprised by the attractiveness of my home city -- apart from the weather, of course.
Rain was falling in dismal sheets. We sat shivering inside our house with the soothing sound of The L.e.d.s, and the not-at-all-soothing squeak of our heat-pump. I contemplated all the outdoor jobs I had planned to do -- in particular, the repair of numerous leaks in our roof. Outside the willow trees dripped, and the swollen river threatened to overflow its banks.
We tried to cheer ourselves up by visiting the seaside suburb of Sumner. It bore an astonishing resemblance to Norman Garstin's painting The Rain it Raineth Every Day. In a brave move, Jennifer decided to make the most of her enforced idleness by learning the baritone concertina. Soon our house reverberated with sea-shanties.
Prior to this, sea-shanties had always struck me as cheerful. But the baritone concertina gives them a very dirge-like quality -- as if performed by Russian sailors who have been sent to a concentration camp for criticizing Stalin. It made me want to howl with misery. To console myself I re-read John Masefield's excellent 1906 essay on the history of the sea-shanty (available online here).
In Christchurch the rain continued to piss down. The puddles on our front lawn grew so large that ducks came to live in them. This maddened me beyond belief. Didn't they realize this was dry land? For the first time in my life I truly wanted to shoot a duck. I closed my eyes, and tried to sooth myself by recalling F.W. Harvey's poem (written on a bad day in Holzminden prison during World War I):
From troubles of the world I turn to ducks,
Beautiful comical things
Sleeping or curled
Their heads beneath white wings
By water cool...
If nothing else, the summer of The L.e.d.s has been good for ducks.