Stopping in small towns

On the way to Turangi we stopped at Foxton.  Mainly we stopped to go to the toilet.  I can tell you that the toilets at Foxton are good.  While I was waiting in the car for my turn I noticed this,

Which made me smile.  To be honest it was a bit of a smart-alecky, city-slicker smile.  Not entirely kind, but not entirely unkind.  I do like small towns like Foxton.  A main road that is a jumble of buildings and empty lots behind which are only fields.  Some of those buildings are quite substantial, and have a bit of style, but around them are only empty spaces where other equally grand buildings failed to materialise. 

After we left Foxton we only stopped one more time, for dinner at Taihape, before we got to our house north of Turangi at about 8pm.  In the house the next morning I found Bill Bryson’s book The Thunderbolt Kid on a book shelf.  I like Bill Bryson books.  Sometimes he is very, very funny.  The Thunderbolt Kid is about Bill’s childhood and it is a good read, but this passage in particular jumped out at me:

That was the glory of living in a world that was still largely free of global chains.  Every community was special and nowhere was like everywhere else.  If our commercial enterprises in Des Moines weren’t the best, they were at least ours.  At the very least, they all had things about them that made them interesting.

Which struck me as being true. 

In Wellington there is an old department store called Kirkcaldie and Stains.  Sometime, probably in the 90s, it was modernised.  They kept the facade of the old building and built two office blocks that rose out of the shell.  A newer, shinier department store remained on the bottom three floors.  Somehow though, visiting Kirks as a child, when Kirks had not been rebuilt, was an infinitely richer and quirkier experience.  The old store had elevator operators, and a kind of mechanical puppet display on one wall, and cavernous bathrooms with attendants, and a tea room that proudly displayed photos of all the women who had won the Miss Kirkcaldie and Stains competition.  It had strange corners filled with rugs, and little nooks where you could unexpectedly come across an accounts department.  It was, in short, unique.  A conglomeration of things accumulated over time.  Which I rather liked, although I believe glossy and organised is generally more admired by shop designers.

In Year 12 Classics there is a topic on Athenian Art and Architecture in which we usually begin with the Parthenon.  When I first taught this topic I was dutifully impressed with the Parthenon which is justly famous for its pleasing proportions and architectural tricks that create the illusion of perfection.

But as time has gone on I am less interested in this building and more interested in a nearby shambles of a structure called the Erectheion (sounds like you’re saying “erection” with a lisp).

The Erectheion is a very bitsy building designed to accommodate an awkward site, and some already extant shrines and places of significance.  Which makes it kind of a mess of styles, but also a tremendously dense site of Athenian myth and history.  The hole in the roof may be from Poseidon’s trident, and where that trident struck the ground was a salt spring.  The olive tree was supposed to be the first olive tree, a gift from Athena.  Inside you could find the statue of Athena Polias, the most ancient and revered of the statues on the Acropolis; a statue that had reputedly fallen on that spot from the heavens.  Here you could find, tucked under a wall, the tomb of Athen’s first king who was half snake. 

Something about all of this makes it a richer building.  Certainly a more interesting one to talk about than the Parthenon.  It is often this way with places and people though.  Character comes out of difficulties or little shapes we mold about our oddities.

In Venice – to take another example – I bought, like many tourists, a copy of John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice.  Unlike many books about architecture or about Venice, Ruskin’s book explained to me why I liked the buildings of Venice.  It was because they were mostly a bit bonkers.  Even the buildings that weren’t and were considered fine examples of something else ended up looking bonkers because of all the higgedly-piggedly stuff around them.  It was Ruskin who made me look at the Ducal Palace properly.

Ruskin pointed out to me that the two windows on the right are a different design and on a different level from all the rest, and that they have two funny little square windows above them, and that this is partly why the building “works”.  This oddness is at the same time something you don’t notice, and something that you do.  It gives a little splash of character.

Which is something, I am beginning to conclude, we could do with more of as we are now very much in the hands of global chains, and large-scale property developments, and an idea of making ourselves international. 

I said that Cathy and I made one more stop for dinner after we left Foxton.  I must glumly inform you that we stopped at McDonalds.  I don’t mind the food at McDonalds, but I mind almost everything else.  When Cathy and I walked into McDonalds in Taihapi I had that same sinking feeling that I have whenever I darken the doors of a Starbucks, or a Wishbone, or a Mojo, or a Borders.  It’s the feeling of entering a place with no past, or no future; of entering a space that is a constant present representing on-trend corporate chic according to someone in an office ten thousand miles away.

Happily small towns are off-trend.  Global chains pass them by.  Those towns have old buildings that have been buggered about with, and dusty one room museums, and mural displays, and strange cafes that smell like sausage rolls and play National Radio.  I increasingly like them.  As much as I like the funny two windows on the end of the Ducal Palace, and the clumped together Erectheion, and wandering about the old Kirks in my memory again.

And I can tell you that we didn’t stop at McDonalds on the way back home after our trip.  We stopped in Foxton.  I gave Rosamund a bottle on the side of the road and we watched the long shadows stretch across the mostly empty street as the sun went down on the crumbling pub, and the second hand store, and Foxton’s fantastic murals.

5 thoughts on “Stopping in small towns

  1. I’ll always remember my first time entering a McDonalds. It was in Porirua around 81 or 82 – this was the first McDonalds in Wellington. What I remember is being surprised by all the packaging; everything was in cardboard. I remember just seeing cardboard everywhere.

  2. I remember that for a while McDonalds wanted us to recycle our mountains of cardboard and mountains of plastic into separate bins because they were saving the planet. Now we just dump it all into one bin. I’d like to think that they have a team of people out back recycling it all, but I don’t think so. Now we can be reassured that their coffee is rainforest alliance certified which doesn’t mean much. It certifies that about 20% of their beans are free trade. When we forget to care about coffee and move into something else so will they.

    But McDonalds is an easy target. They’re all the same. Burger King, KFC, Burger Fuel, Wishbone, Starbucks… waste, waste, waste.

  3. You know, I wouldn’t lump Mojo in with those other franchises. The Mojo cafes are all different on the inside, each separately designed to work with the building and the neighbourhood they’re in. The menus aren’t even the same. Mojo Waterfront does great pizza, but Mojo Kent Terrace does an amazing kedgeree, while Mojo Lambton Square is focused on coffee and so doesn’t do kitchen meals. Mojo have gone to great efforts to make sure that all their cafes feel different – and I think they have succeeded at this.

    I once heard a theory about franchises – each business only has a certain amount of greatness and the more outlets it opens, the more the greatness gets diluted. So while one or two cafes can work, by the time you get to Starbucks or McDonald’s levels, there’s very little greatness left.

    Meanwhile, I find myself strangely nostalgic for the McDonald’s of the ’80s, back when it was all burgers, fries and drinks and no one was pretending to be healthy and the restaurants weren’t kitted out like a corporate retreat lodge.

  4. I dislike all places that give you something disposable to take away that you five minutes later toss in the bin.

    This came from an awful moment of clarity in a ramen restaurant in Japan when I realised that almost every single meal bought in a convenience store or a restaurant in that country of 130 million people came with a pair of disposable chopsticks made of wood. The amount of wood used everyday in Japan so that people can stick a bit of rice in their mouths boggles the mind. It’s about as mind boggling as how many disposable cups are thrown away everyday so people can have coffee on the go.

    So, I can let Mojo off on one count (corporate blah), but not on another (waste). And 23 stores since 2003? Sounds like it won’t be long before they begin killing competition and forcing one-off, non-chain cafes out of business.

  5. My sister and I only went to McDonalds in Gisborne for other kids’ birthday parties or if we were being looked after by someone else. Not so much because of my mother’s concern for the environment or our health, but because she disliked all things American.

    Instead we went to the tearooms at the Williams and Kettle store, because that’s where her mother took her as a little girl. We knew the names of all the tea ladies, and most of the other farming families that walked in and I distinctly remember the decor, the egg sandwiches, the bean curtain that led to the toilets, and the welcome we got every time we went.

    Eventually the store was bulldozed down to make way for a Warehouse store.

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