I had big plans for how it would be driving back into Wellington. I imagined tearing down the Ngauranga Gorge, fighting its counter-slanting incline, to catch the first glimpse of the harbour and then the city, all to a carefully chosen selection of tunes on the iPod. As it happened, we drove into town listening to the Black Caps being pulverized by the Indians, interrupted by a brief moment when I tried and failed to make the iPod work, and accordingly spent more time fiddling with buttons than taking in the view.
Fortunately, this was not a portent of things to come. Even if all one’s carefully laid plans go astray, there is still something very powerful about coming home, especially to such a vital and beautiful city as Wellington. The combination of lovingly-restored villas nestled in green trees, as if dropped there by helicopter, all overlooking a blue harbour is enchanting; especially, as they say, on a good day. Whatever else one might say about the place, it wears its heart on its sleeve, and it is not coloured beige.
My wife and I have spent some time catching up with parents and grandparents and generally reacquainting ourselves with our old/new city. I experienced a thrill of pure joy – like a warm glow moving up my spine to emerge as a smile – walking down Cuba St in the sunlight, looking in at the shops and cafes, and checking out Slowboat Records and Real Groovy. I don’t doubt there is a honeymoon element to this sensation – which is sure to wane as I get accustomed to working once again – but it is good while it lasts.
For the most part I have, happily, not been struck by a crippling concern at how much smaller Wellington is than London. In many respects, this is a positive advantage. The population seems still to be fairly diverse and the cafes, bars and restaurants (my main judging criteria) still seem excellent. We have been doing a spot of house-hunting and a striking feature of walking through a succession of brightly-painted wooden houses is the quality of the stuff on the bookshelves: either Wellingtonians are very well-read indeed or real estate agents advise vendors to borrow some great library books.
Wandering through town, I figured that it doesn’t so much matter how many bars and restaurants a city has, but how many it has that you want to, and can practicably, visit. London has innumerable eateries, most of them chains and many of them disappointing. There is effort, travel and often lengthy advance booking or queuing involved in enjoying the hidden (but genuine) gems. In practice, say at the end of a busy week, this can create the incentive to settle for mediocre fare at a local outlet, and I have done this many a time.
I will do it less here, as eating excellent food in Wellington seems altogether to be a more straightforward proposition. I would be happy to work my way through virtually every place on Cuba St – from the cafes, to the bars, to the Malaysian restaurants (the street may yet come to be known as Little Malaysia). I suspect the same is true of a lot of theatre and music events; less choice, but overall a good-quality field to choose from. One might think of this distinction in terms of restaurant menus. London offers a very large and inconsistent menu, with some of the best dishes available (and prices to match), as well as a lot else. Wellington gives you a much smaller menu, most of which is fairly tempting.
What is not so tempting is Wellington’s daily newspaper, which is even less scintillating in hard copy than on the Stuff website. At a casual glance, it is difficult to see what, if anything, the poor old Dominion Post aspires to be. It does not reflect the vitality, wit or intelligence of the city, it is unconvincing as a national newspaper of record and its stories appear mostly to be written by the Associated Press or borrowed from an overseas newspaper.
I am sure there are good economic reasons why – with some notable exceptions, such as Simon Collins of the Herald, aside – the best NZ journalism appears to have gravitated to feature magazines, on-line projects or overseas locations. But if one of the underlying reasons is the difficulty of making money in the modern newspaper business, the DomPost is not alone.
A recent article by former Time managing editor Walter Isaacson suggests that newspapers – which traditionally derived their revenue from sales, subscriptions and advertising– are, in the brave new webby world, over-reliant upon advertising; a situation he thinks is unsustainable. His answer (ironically available on-line at no cost) is to charge for on-line content – a scheme readers will remember failed with both the New York Times and the New Zealand Herald – but only once there is an accepted "one-click [payment] system with a really simple interface" to facilitate on-line impulse purchases. I hope he is right and that such a micropayment system arrives soon: I would be delighted to pay a fair price for access to a quality national (or even local) newspaper. I think newspapers are the sort of institutions you only really miss when they are gone.
In the meantime, I will continue to get my news from around the world for free and focus on the bright side. I get to read the Guardian and the New York Times on-line while living in a lovely harbour city, instead of reading Stuff and the NZH on-line from my desk in London. It seems like a fair trade-off to me.