Berhampore is a peculiar suburb. You can live your whole life in Wellington and not know where it is, and if you find it you might not figure out where it ends or where it begins before you have driven through it. Was it the first bit of Island Bay or the last part of Newtown? It was neither. It was Berhampore.
I have been researching a book with some other people for the centenary of Berhampore School. Which is more interesting than it sounds. Until some time in the 1990s, Berhampore has always been on the edge. Places just on the edge of a city are seen as perfect spots for things that city folk want (or grudgingly accept as necessary) but don’t want in their backyard. So Berhampore has or has had a lively collection of institutions over its history including a plaque hospital, a boiling down works, a brick factory, a gang headquarters, a couple of rubbish dumps, homes for orphans, homes for veterans, homes for the homeless, and about half a dozen council flat complexes.
Researching this book has also been interesting because I believe you can get a fairly good social and cultural history of New Zealand out of a tiny little suburb like Berhampore. Thanks to the social housing you can also get a good read on parts of world history. At the moment the social housing is predominantly Middle Eastern and Muslim. A slightly earlier wave of Somali are also there. Typically it is the women who stand out. The Somali women in their long layers of light flowing material stand out most, but most of the women – including the girls – also wear the distinctive hijab. Despite what some people think the hijab is not some kind of brain suppressing device. The Muslim girls in my daughter’s primary school class, and the girls I have taught at secondary school, display the full range of personality types from sassy to somnolent and everything in between.
After something like Charlie Hebdo I don’t think the people just down the road in the social housing need my pity, I think they need the society they have been forced to come to to remain open to them. They need the housing to be maintained, the schools and health clinics to be cheap and effective, the doors of employees to stay open to them. That is the guarantee for them and for us of a good society without extremism on either side.
Thankfully we don’t have anything like Charlie Hebdo in New Zealand. Much as I accept the idea that you don’t wear shoes on to a marae I accept the idea that you don’t depict the prophet, or show disrespect to the book that Muslims believe contain the words of God. This doesn’t mean cultures just accept each other though, or that we can’t think about things. Women being forbidden from speaking on marae seems pretty contestable to me, as does denying girls in Muslim countries a full education. It cuts both ways though. The majority that judges should itself be able to tolerate being judged.
I’m not Charlie and – for a different reason – neither are all those politicians holding hands in Paris and then spinning their half-truths, and conducting their surveillance, and imprisoning journalists in their home countries. When I teach Islam I don’t show images of the prophet. Not doing that doesn’t close down debate, it actually creates a place where debate can happen because people know that their cultures will be respected. Does anyone think the Muslim students in my class would be encouraged to engage in a thoughtful conversation if I worked in a school that forced them to remove their hijabs, or celebrated the right to denigrate their most spiritual leader (or, for that matter, was so utterly dishonest about its colonial legacy in North Africa)?
Watching “I am Charlie” unfold reminds me of seeing the surging support for Don Brash after his Orewa speech. It alienates me from what is supposed to be my culture. While a mob marches down the street I find myself walking the other way. Not defiantly. Not proudly. It makes me feel lonely and depressed.
If you talk to the kids of Berhampore of the 1940s, 50s and 60s you hear the same stories over and over. The stories are about roaming. The stories are about heading out on the weekends from breakfast until dinner with some mates and walking into the hills, and the bush. You would go down to the creeks and look for crawlies, or into the trees to play sprawling games flinging stones at the Newtown kids and running for cover. You’d look for fruit off the trees that grew in people’s gardens, and sneak into the vege plots and nab a few carrots. In you had some money then you could go to the shops. The baker who made beautiful coffee buns, or dense, oozing pies with pastry that flaked off in your hand. You could go to the fish and chip shop and get the scraps for 1p, or to the lolly shop, or the grocer. At the shops you could sit and watch the trams go by, or look in at one of the butchers, one of the hairdressers, the chemist or the drapers with their rolls of fabric, and packets of buttons and needles and thread. On Sunday there was church, but there was also the Wellington Reps practising on Athletic Park, and the pearly white teeth and movie idol looks of Jimmy Taitoko who would always give you an autograph and a smile.
It is the school holidays and Eleanor and I went out to look for all the old places where the kids of Berhampore used to roam. I knew before I started that a lot of those places are gone. The streams have been piped, the scrappy land has been built on and the enthusiasm for fruit trees and vege patches has waned. There are still places you can go though. The hardest to get places where the bulldozers can’t go on the fringes between the playing fields and houses. In those little gullies we did not find streams because it has been a dry summer, but we did find places where the water would run in winter. Not streams then but run offs leading to drains, all overgrown with wandering willy between the punga and the trees.
One story has it that there is a cave up behind Berhampore. A man who murdered his girlfriend hid there in the 50s or 60s before running to the coast and drowning himself in the strait. Eleanor and I went to look for the cave which might be somewhere around Mount Albert. We spent about an hour and a half climbing through the bush around the back of the Hockey Stadium following long-disused paths that were often overgrown with gorse or blackberry. The paths led nowhere and we found ourselves making our own paths. Sometimes when the land dipped down to what might at times have been stream beds there was room to move. The ground was covered in leaf litter, and the air was cool and shaded under the trees. We found evidence of an old power line: the ceramic conductors still attached to the crossbeams of a long felled power pole. When we were quiet for a bit a fantail would usually come and sit and watch us, before doing its darting, ducking bursts of flight away on to farther branches and then out of sight.
We emerged from the bush scratched and sweaty but feeling pleased with our adventure. We had done some roaming. Some good proper roaming.
It is not, however, an entirely happy story because the other thing you find when you go roaming anywhere in Berhampore is rubbish. Everywhere. Even far away from the paths in the shaded stream beds looking for a cave it is there. In those places where most people don’t go it is usually plastic bags that have blown in and been snagged, then weighed down with rain water and pulled to the forest floor. In the remnants of scrub, in the little gullies around the parks there is far more than plastic bags; there you will find all the bottles, and takeaway cups and lolly wrappers. In one piece of bush, between a park and a large block of flats, the ground under the trees had all of that and more. It had become a sort of rubbish dump and a place to have a few quiet ones with mates. Little piles of beer bottles, and cigarette packets. Eleanor and I stopped to admire a set of coat hangers on the tree branches. Looking at the rubbish strewn all through the bush I began to wonder about the educational value of taking Eleanor to these places. Instead of these trips being about roaming, they were becoming about environmental shittiness and malaise.
Sometimes in the bush you would also stumble upon a little camp. Somebody’s home. A tarp, some cardboard, and no one around. In fact, you begin to notice that you are alone. That there is no one on the footpath. That the parks are empty, and the bush is silent. Instead of kids roaming we have fear, and TV, and holiday programmes, and the necessity for both parents to work. The liberation of work has enslaved us all.
In this way the story of the kids roaming and the old Berhampore shops are linked. There was a time when shopping local was normal, and when people brought their baskets to the store, and the goods came loose to be packaged in paper in store, or left as they were. The only thing I see wrong with that picture is that it was women who were made to do that work, and were essentially denied things like a career. Somehow in the liberation of women we have also been given the modern lifestyle where both parents work, and have no time for life, and grab takeaways more often than they know they should, and want handy little packaged items to throw in kids’ lunchboxes in the morning (I am describing my own life in case you think I’m being judgemental).
The (partial) liberation of women is not, of course, to blame. I suppose that it might come back to men again. In the end men accepted women into the work places but didn’t change anything about their own gender identity: “you can have a job princess, but make sure the house is tidy”.
I’m at war with myself. These two things represent how I feel about a third of the time.
And this, sometimes, is my revolutionary anthem.
And then there is the other two-thirds of me. It’s an unhappier place. I wonder if the good in us can hold. I wonder if we can survive the tides that are rising about us.
About two-thirds of me thinks we cannot.