There are fundamental patterns that once embedded in a society, remain enormously difficult to change. In the US, racism and gun violence seem almost genetic. The counter-culture, now morphed into the Occupy, Environmental and Black Lives Matter movements simply bounce off this hard kernel of toxicity.
Neo-liberalism has embedded a clichéd notion of freedom which leads to an almost feudal, unashamed elite – the Tony Blair’s of the world who become untouchable, continuing to wield power and to make money because of the networks they have built while in political office. It leads to the unseemly back stabbing currently being played out in the UK with all the subtlety of a Renaissance court.
On the Coast, the hard knot of settler puritanism continues to exist. James K. Baxter captured the phenomenon perfectly in his 1960 poem, Ballad of Calvary Street. “On Calvary Street are trellises/Where bright as blood the roses bloom/And gnomes like pagan fetishes/Hang their hats on an empty tomb…” Baxter described the awful relationship between the elderly couple that time and puritanism have wrought: “…wisdom, age and mothercraft/Have rubbed it home that men like dirt.” A daughter and son in law pay a Sunday afternoon visit and “Discuss the virtues of insurance.” After they’ve gone “…the two old fools are left” for whom “Habit, habit dogs them dumb…” and “Yin and Yang won’t ever meet/In Calvary Street, in Calvary Street.”
It’s a great poem and despite the frivolities brought by postmodernism and globalisation, that hard kernel of misery continues. Greymouth is not a pretty place. It has its virtues – a predominantly working class culture can seem like a virtue – but if it is to compete on the visitor market, it needs to change. A couple of years ago, the Council held a series of sector discussions to generate ideas. Brighten up the CBD was a high priority. A council officer held a well-organised community consultation, with people voting on a range of options. A town square proposal received wide approval, for good reason. Every place needs a central place to meet, sit, talk, hold gatherings, to start and finish marches and protests, a place to dance, sing and celebrate. The Council drew up plans and found the money – $1.7 million – for a partial roof is necessary. The Mawhera Corporation donated the land. All good.
Except the gnomes have reacted. First of all some shopkeepers started to moan. Why wasn’t the money being spent on their footpaths? A couple of ex councillors began to rant. What an idea, to spend money on frivolity (a place to relax, sing and dance etc…) when there are pot holes to fix and drains to sluice. A petition is circulating, sure to attract the generally grumpy from Calvary Street. This hard knot of puritanism which has made sure the town lacks aesthetic appeal in the past will try and preserve ‘the empty tomb’, like the Americans will try to hold onto their guns and their racism, like the elite will try and keep control in the name of freedom.
But as I write the above I am equally aware of the opposite. We are midway through rehearsals of our next play, which explores a new culture for the Coast. As usual, I am flabbergasted by the generosity of the people who have joined the project, contributing their time, skills and energy to the play, often having to move outside a comfort zone to explore a new idea or form. It’s a different street altogether. At the moment it can only exist as ‘play’. Hopefully, one day it will be able to exist in real life.