17 January 2009

Journey to the end of the world

From a travel narrative by Paul Theroux, in which he discusses his impression of New Zealanders when he visited the country in the early 1990s:

'Still, nearly everyone I met asked me, 'What do you think of Na Zillun?' 'It's wonderful,' I said. They always shrugged and denied it. New Zealanders, smug and self-congratulatory about David Lange's non-nuclear policy, seemed to me to be the hardest people in the world to compliment. There was something Calvinist in this refusal to accept praise, but it was so persistent it was almost as though in their stubborn humility they were fishing for compliments.

If you spoke about their well-maintained cities they said they were actually very disorderly. Tell them their mountains are high and snowy and they retorted that yours were higher and snowier. 'New Zealanders are fitness fanatics,' I said to a man. 'That's a myth,' he said. 'We're very unhealthy as a nation. We're poofs'. If I said New Zealand seemed prosperous they claimed it was dying on its feet. Mention the multiracial aspect of the North Island and they said 'we hev ithnic unrest. There'll be a blow-up any munnit'. 'But it's much better than Australia, I hear'. 'Bitter by a long chalk. Your Aussie's an enemal'.

Secretly, I said to myself: Everyone's wearing old ill-fitting clothes and sensible shoes. They carried string bags. They shopped in places with names like Clark's General Drapers and Edwin Mouldey Ironmongery [...] The older people were dull and decent, the younger ones trying hopelessly to be stylish, and the students - Kiwis to the tips of their pinfeathers - aggressively scruffy and gauche. Here and there you saw a Maori, often working a cash register. They were supposed to be clubby and fairly menacing, but they were all smiles and inhabited big solid bodies; they were the only people in New Zealand who looked right at home.

I went to Dunedin, which was cold and frugal, with its shabby streets and mock Gothic university, and talked to the students. 'They're very shy,' I was told. Really? They seemed to me ignorant, assertive and dirty. It felt like the end of the world, and when I looked at a map this seemed true: we were only about 20 degrees north of the Antarctic Circle - leave the southern tip of New Zealand and the next upright mammal you are likely to see is an emperor penguin'

- Paul Theroux, The Happy Isles of Oceania, 1992

No comments: