Patrick Crewdson - reluctant JAFA, Auckland

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

There is no depression in New Zealand

There are no gays in Taranaki. They have some black sand beaches, a Destiny Church pastor with an overprotective PA, a tasty sandwich shop on the main drag and a mountain that just won't quit, but no gay people. Or at least, that's the facetious claim the senior staff at The Daily News like to make. My conclusion, as I struggled to report on the Civil Union Bill during my j-school field trip there last week, was more mundane: there are just no homosexuals in Taranaki willing to answer their cellphones.

Every editor seems to say the way to get ahead in journalism is to serve a couple of years in the provinces. Learn the ropes, make your bones, get some experience. Fair enough then, that AUT sends its cub reporters out for a taste of rural life. Comparatively speaking, the New Plymouth-based Daily News (which is about to take the big step of working the mountain into its masthead and re-naming itself The Taranaki Daily News) was a plum assignment for the seven of us sent there. Alternatives included The Piako Post, The Whakatane Beacon and a list of other postings that made New Plymouth look positively major league. (I should add that although I'm down on rural locales in general, I'm totally down with the staff of the Daily News, all of whom were friendly and helpful.)

Our trip was lead by former Alliance party president Jill Ovens, a lovely woman who wears woolly jerseys and signs her emails "yours in sisterhood". She gave us a sneak preview of the new issue of leftist journal Red & Green, which includes an article by her "debunking the myth of Princess Laila". Each morning she piloted the enormous Budget rent-a-van down the short hill from the Carrington Motel (the only place I've ever stayed where you don't get a Bible but you do get an FHM) to the newsroom. Being from New Plymouth, she also served as our local guide, pointing out the sites - ooh! the unusually well-designed District Council building! aah! the supermarket that's open till midnight! - and informing us on what to expect.

So what can you expect from New Plymouth's 66,000 people? Well, there may not be any homosexuals - they all move to Auckland, the theory goes - but the city can boast a certain tolerance for unorthodox lifestyles. Fellow cadet Nadia spent a morning checking out the locals at the District Court. On her return, she was scathing. "He had the baddest mullet I've ever seen," she said, describing the judge. We all laughed. The legal profession is funny.

Back in the newsroom, the decorations spoke of cosmopolitan pretensions. Up on the walls, clocks told the time in the great cities of the world: London, New York, Rome, Tokyo, and, um, Inglewood. In what one would guess is a frequent occurrence, News Editor Steve Anker was pressed into defending his much-maligned home town, which lies "amidst the almost fluorescent greenness of the Taranaki pastureland" just a short trot down SH3A from Waitara, east of New Plymouth. "There hasn't been a murder in Inglewood in at least three or four months," he protested. We all laughed. Homicide is funny.

Determined to get some local culture into us, we trooped along for a pub quiz at Peggy Gordons Celtic Bar. Given the awful meal we'd been served there the night before (included on the 'gourmet' pizza menu: Hawaiian), it may not have been wise to return at all, but entering the quiz under the name 'The Jafas' was even more ill-considered. During the after-match melee, a drunkard in a red woolly jersey charged up to test us on which direction the water goes down the toilet in Auckland. "Clockwise," we said correctly. "I thought you like everything to be different up in Auckland," he replied smugly. Aucklanders weren't the only group to cop some flak. When the answer to one question was 'China' the compere, New Plymouth district councillor and Newstalk ZB host Phil Quinney, ad libbed a few choice racial impressions: "Ah so. China. Ah so." A toothless oaf at the bar laughed. Folk who ain't from round here are funny.

The day after the pub quiz I finally found the pot at the end of the rainbow - a local gay lad who was also media friendly. We chatted for a while about the Civil Union Bill and Destiny Church's Enough is Enough campaign, scheduled to hit the capital on August 23. He said yes to being quoted, but wasn't willing to be identified. A previous outing in the paper had caused some strife at home, you see, so much so that he now lives in a backpackers'. Despite his own sad story, the young guy was optimistic that most Taranaki residents wouldn't share Destiny Church's view of his orientation (to wit: a catalyst of the disintegration of society's moral fabric). Still, I couldn't wondering: is this why there are no gay people in Taranaki?