Hard News by Russell Brown


The better place

By Friday afternoon, I wanted to think about anything other than the foul, troubling politics of the preceding week. So I went to the Zoo. Not on my own, but as an outing with my younger son.

It was a good opportunity to get him out and engaging with the world. It's a long time since we had to withdraw him from a school that couldn't deal with his behaviour, which was rooted in extreme anxiety related to his autism. Since then, he's created his own, orderly, non-anxiogenic environment that mostly doesn't extend beyond the walls of his room. He has plenty of friends out on the internet, only one or two in the physical world. We both know he needs to reach an accommodation with the world at some point, but although he's thoughtful and intelligent, he doesn't yet know how. Nor, for that matter, do I.

It was a good outing. We spent three hours at the Zoo and he was engaged and comfortable. It also turns out that he can read maps way better than me. Like a lot of what he knows, he learned that from video games.

That night, I joined my friend Alan Perrott to play some records at the Portland Public House in Kingsland. He's rather more accomplished than me, but between us, we had a floor full of twenty-to-fifty-somethings rocking. I played a 7" single that I picked up this year, a 2017 Record Store Day release that went unsold and wound up in the 2018 sale bin. It's the kind of thing that shouldn't work – Aretha retreading a hit with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra? Preposterous! – but it really does. It's really loud and rich-sounding. A proper banger:

The next day, I rode into the city for Auckland's annual Diwali celebration. I confess, the main thing on my mind was lunch – I love the food at Diwali – but there was much more there than that. All over Aotea Square, dance groups, almost all groups of girls, were doing last-minute rehearsals for their time on stage.

Others just waited excitedly for their turn:

Once the food vendors were up and running, I got myself a $5 bhel puri and sat down in the square to watch the people. There are more than 100,000 Aucklanders of Indian origin and they're a diverse bunch: Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims; people who came directly here, or via Fiji or South Africa; members of the subcontinent's various ethnic groups; recent arrivals, families who've been here for generations. And increasingly, Diwali celebrations attract the rest of us too.

I finished my bhel puri, which lacked a little for the green chilli I'd been expecting, and walked over to see one of the dance performances. It turned out to be some kids from Mt Roskill, who presented a dance-and-video piece that included a waiata, Indian hip hop and a narrative about respecting each other and not getting too caught up in social media. These performances are usually straight-up Bollywood, but here, these kids – mostly, these girls – were telling their own story.

I went back over to Queen Street (it's such a happy place without motor vehicles) and got some samosa chaat for $6. As I finished that, I heard an announcement that members of the New Zealand Defence Force, who had a recruiting tent at the festival, would be leading off the day's street performances, so I went to look. What happened next was remarkable and heartwarming:

I celebrated with a third meal. I'd noticed that the stall with the big queues were those run by the various temples, but I couldn't tell whether that was because the food was better or everyone was just being a good Hindu. Turns out, it was the food. I caught a quiet moment at one of the temple vendors and splashed out a whole $7 on a Manchurian– Indian dumplings ("like meatballs but not," the man explained) slathered in an Indo-Chinese sauce that was spicy in a way my bhel puri had not been. My heart said have a fourth meal, my belly said sorry no.

I rode up the hill a little heavier of person and considerably lighter of spirit. Part of me wishes I'd gone back in the evening to try some bhangra dancing myself, because this pic posted by Ludo Campbell-Reid made it look like that would've been a lot of fun.

But I had business with a barbecue and some televised sport. The Auckland rugby team won its Mitre 10 Cup semi-final over Wellington. Mate Ma'a Tonga lost the rugby league test to Australia, but Tonga still won. I've walked into an FA Cup final at Wembley and heard 'Abide With Me', but I've never heard singing like Saturday night's crowd.

On Sunday morning, after eggs for breakfast, it was time to ride over and visit proper Auckland at Avondale Markets. The market doesn't try to be "diverse", there's no plan to it; the people there are just who we are in Auckland, bringing what we've got to the same place. And along with the fruit and veges, there was a big box of 7" singles.

So, again, I rode home happy.

Why am I telling you all this? I think it's because I was so depressed by the bleak, transactional vision of "diversity" that formed part of last week's politics (excellent columns by my friends Sudhvir Singh and Tze Ming Mok explain what's wrong better than I could). And then I went out to forget that bleak vision and discovered something better and realised how much I love this city and what it's becoming.

So let's eat, drink, dance and trade. Let's be hosted by each other. Let's just be the better place.

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