Craig Cliff reckons with his home city as he reviews a history of Palmerston North

In Generation A, Douglas Coupland’s forgettable sequel-in-spirit to Generation X, there’s a character named Samantha who is supposed to live in Palmerston North but promptly falls into the uncanny valley carved out by the Canadian author’s half-arsed internet research. Poor, disorientated Samantha refers to provinces rather than regions, drives along Route 56 not State Highway 56, and name-checks unfamiliar plants and flowers. When a plane from the US to Auckland is diverted to Palmerston North, it manages to land without reference to the insufficient length of the runway and further leaves credibility in the dust when a large number of the passengers were apparently bound for Palmy anyway!

As someone born and raised in Palmerston North, reading City at the Centre, the new civic history from Massey University Press to commemorate “150 years of permanent settlement and 90 years as a city”, reminded me of Generation A: there’s so much historical fact and so little pulse in the retelling that it, too, creates a convenient but ultimately false Palmerston North. A place where sawmills are opened, mayors are elected, friendly societies are formed, but very rarely does anything happen.

There’s an early anecdote from the 1870s, when locals were considering changing the name of the town. One suggestion was to rename it Ujiji, after the place British explorers David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley met up in what is now Tanzania. But I did not grow up in Ujiji. I grew up in Palmerston North, a place where things only almost happen.


Here are two exceptions. Page 86: “The first curator of reserves, Walter Thurston, was replaced in 1907 by the highly regarded W.W. (William) Smith, who, however, resigned in 1908 after a matter of months, when Mayor Richard Essex labelled him a mere ‘common cabbage gardener.’” And a caption, on page 211: “The school [Palmerston North’s first high school] was allegedly burnt down by the notorious fugitive Joseph Pawelka in 1910, a charge he denied.”

Conflict, danger, mystery. But the great yarns both sentences imply are not forthcoming in City at the Centre. And other yarns do not even break the surface. Instead, we get a two-page spread about Samuel Jickell, borough engineer, whose major achievement was improving the town’s water supply, and a full-page table of the gravel pits of Palmerston North!

As Margaret Tennant and Geoff Watson put it in their introductory chapter, “If a centre’s qualities are captured, partly at least, by tea towels issued with its name, Palmerston North’s attributes were not of a dynamic kind. ‘The City of Space and Grace’ said one, probably from the 1960s; ‘A Pleasant Place is Palmerston North’ indicated another.”

Tennant and Watson are having some fun with these tea towels, and have not set out, with fellow editor Kerry Taylor, to prove there is no dynamism or danger in Palmerston North, past or present, but their book constantly fails to generate interesting content from a wealth of opportunities.

Student shenanigans are summed up in a paragraph about capping stunts and an off-hand reference to the legendary fish burgers at Golden Takeaways. Boy racers and their “promenading” around The Square in “vehicular form” get a sentence on page 242.

The meat of this history is divided into eight thematic chapters – pre-European history, environment, infrastructure, employment, politics, education, sport and leisure, community groups – and each much hurtle through the same 150 years from John Tiffin Stewart selecting the clearing known as Te Papaiōea as the site for a new township through to the present day.

It’s appropriate that tangata whenua gets the first of these chapters, but as a book occasioned by the arrival of white settlers a nice round number of years ago, it’s impossible to shake colonial constructs completely. Peter Meihana (Ngāti Kuia, Rangitāne, Ngāti Apa, Ngāi Tahu) and Hone Morris (Ngāi Te Rangitotohu ki Rangitāne, Ngāti Mārau ki Kahungunu) must run through an honour roll of names and dates just like the authors of subsequent chapters.


When I flicked through the index, the first thing to catch my eye was “Cosmopolitan Club, 133, 178, 268-9, 283, 293”. That’s a lot of references to the place my dad would sometimes go for a drink after work or on weekends. I’ve never been there myself, and despite it appearing on six pages I still have no idea what it’s like.

Miss Graine McConnell entertains some bemused-looking members of the Palmerston North Happiness Club with a ‘skipping ballet’ in 1958. Manawatū Heritage 2017N_2017-20_015041

Given I was in the C’s, I turned back one page to see if Cliffs Automotive, the firm my grandfather and uncle ran for most of my childhood (and a good many years before that), appeared. It did not. What about Janet Frame and the possibly apocryphal story about when she lived on Dahlia Street as Janet Clutha and people kept stealing her letterbox? Nope. John Clarke is mentioned, twice, once for contributing the name for the landfill and the second time in the same sentence as Jeremy Corbett and Jon Bridges.

Reflecting on this experience with the index, I must concede many of the book’s failures are those of taste. When faced with the choice of devoting a page to gravel pits, Mark Lundy, James Brown’s poem “I come from Palmerston North”, or the Blue Moon Dairy, they took the gravel pits.

Must we leave it to historians to write our histories? City at the Centre provides a stark reminder of what might happen if we do.


And yet! And yet I feel bad for calling out this book as presenting a convenient but false Palmerston North. My Palmerston North is false, too.

I remember sitting in a classroom at Ross Intermediate and thinking what it must be like to be a 12-year-old in Germany and knowing what your country and probably your relatives had done earlier in the twentieth century. How odd to be innocent and yet kind of guilty at the same time? It would be many years before I saw the double-image here: the Pakehā kid who almost got put into the Māori immersion syndicate due to a vaguely worded question on the enrolment form, and the absolute terror when the true meaning was pointed out to me. The thoughts I could have been having about the complicity of my own forebears in disrespecting Te Tiriti and displacing mana whenua – but we were never taught about these things. Palmerston North always seemed more interested in its next civic slogan than the entanglements of the past.

Knowledge City

Young Heart, Easy Living

Small City Benefits, Big City Ambitions

I had been led to believe that Te Papaiōea was a kind of Eden, a divine pasture among the wild bush, waiting for a more advanced civilisation to recognise its agricultural and economic potential. Michael Roche, in his chapter on Palmerston North’s environmental history, points out the clearing was not natural, but the work of “human-induced burning”. The surrounding areas were “neither unoccupied not unmodified”, with Ruāhine pā “famed for its gardens and peaches”. Pakehā were induced by Rangitāne to settle in the area because they felt it would “benefit local Māori enterprises… up and down the river,” according to Russell Poole in his chapter, ‘Building the City’.


Another memory: a sleepover at a friend’s house for his 10th birthday. For the sake of this anecdote you need to know that his mum was Pakehā and his dad was Māori, but at the time I was more interested in the fact we were going to see Batman Returns at 8pm, which seemed incredibly late to me. When we got home and were all arrayed on mattresses on the bedroom floor, my friend’s mother told us a story about how the boy’s father had been in foster families growing up and he thought something was wrong with him. Why was his skin so dark? One time, he tried to scrub the brownness out with a wire brush.

What prompted her to tell us this story? Was it something I did or said? I never wondered this at the time.

John Cleese famously proclaimed Palmerston North as “the suicide capital of New Zealand”. Palmerston North-born John Clarke suggested renaming the Awapuni rubbish dump as the John Cleese Memorial Tip. In due course a good-humoured sign appeared labelling the landfill Mt Cleese. Photograph: Simon Johnson

It was around this age that I started going fishing with Doug, a bachelor friend of my dad. This was a decade before the Manawatū was proclaimed one of the 300 most polluted rivers in the world, but I only ever asked my mum to fry up one brown trout. That was plenty. Doug used to pick me up in his Mini, drive us over the Fitzherbert Bridge and then cut across DSIR land to a spot on the southern bank of the river. You cannot fly fish on the Manawatū – it’s too swift, too broad, too muddy. Instead, we spun, which involves casting a metal lure as far as you can, then immediately reeling it in, and repeating this over and over until a fish strikes. Usually in the rain.

Minimal artistry, maximum tenacity.

That’s Palmy for you, I used to think.

Then earlier this year, on my first visit after the nationwide lockdown, I took my kids across He Ara Kotahi, the new walking and cycling bridge across the river. There are asphalt cycle paths on both the town side and the southern banks, so it took me a while to recognise that I had returned to Doug’s old fishing spot. Only the information boards were telling a different story. Ride to the right and pass Te Motu-o-Poutoa, the site of a former fortified stronghold. Ride to the left and it’s Te Kuripaka. And where the bridge is now was once the village known as Mokomoko.

I’ll let the Palmerston North City Council’s website take it from here: “Rangitāne had occupied the village for 300 years with established gardens, horticulture and a trading port, before abandoning it after an attack on its inhabitants. The main Rangitāne force who defended the old village had left southward to tend to another matter, leaving women, children, elderly, and a small number of junior warriors. But with inferior weapons, defending the village was difficult.

“Upon the main force’s return and under the leadership of Chief Te Peeti Te Awe Awe, a full force hokowhitu (battalion) met the adversaries on the Kairanga battlefield (near Linton) to make their final stand. Rangitāne were victorious and are survived by their descendants residing in Palmerston North today.”

Mokomoko does not appear in City at the Centre.

City at the Centre: A history of Palmerston North edited by Margaret Tennant, Geoff Watson and Kerry Taylor (Massey University Press, $60) is available in bookstores throughout the Manawatu.

* ReadingRoom reviews appear with the support of Creative New Zealand*

Craig Cliff is the author of three books, most recently the novel Nailing Down the Saint. He lives in Wellington.

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