(First published in The Dominion Post, November 17.)
I’ve been copping a bit of stick lately. Not because of anything I’ve said or done, or even how I look, but because of where I live.
Last month’s announcement that Masterton had been declared New Zealand’s Most Beautiful City was the cue for much chortling and guffawing at my expense.
I’ve lived contentedly in Masterton for nearly 15 years, but I concede it’s not a town that immediately springs to mind when you start thinking about beautiful places.
I received an email about the award from a friend in Nelson, a city so lovely that its residents can’t help but feel smug. In the subject line he simply wrote “Oh, please!”. There was a world of incredulity and ridicule in those two words.
Even locally, the decision was regarded with surprise and scepticism. “You have to be bloody joking,” one heretical Masterton resident wrote on the Wairarapa News website. Another wondered whether all the other cities in New Zealand had been blown up - proving at least that Masterton people have a self-deprecating sense of humour, along with their many other virtues.
In the same awards, Greytown, just down the road, was declared New Zealand’s most beautiful small town. Now there was an award that people understood and agreed with.
Greytown is pretty and charming. It has become Wellington’s favourite weekend bolt-hole. If you’re from Kelburn or Wadestown, you’re just as likely to see your next-door neighbour in Greytown’s Main Street on a Saturday as you are at your corner dairy. Locals grizzle that they can’t find a car park because of all the out-of-town Porsches and Range-Rovers clogging the street.
But to me (and I hope I don’t offend my Greytown friends by saying this), Greytown is a bit Midsomer, if you get my drift. I don’t mean they keep killing each other there by gruesomely inventive means, as in the TV series, but it’s all rather fashionably homogeneous.
Masterton, on the other hand, is a Decile 1-10 town. Every socio-economic stratum is represented here, from wealthy old Wairarapa farming dynasties to multi-generational welfare-dependent families living in P houses with dead Ford Falcons on the front lawn.
It remains a no-nonsense provincial farming town. Drive in from the south and you run a gauntlet of agricultural equipment dealers, which clearly signals what drives the local economy. On weekends the sound of chainsaws can be deafening.
People think there’s a lot of crime here, but that’s largely a residual reputation from a past era. In any case, I no longer cringe when I see a headline about a drive-by shooting or a senseless act of vandalism in M-town.
In fact I now take a kind of perverse pride in such incidents, celebrating them as evidence of a community that represents humanity in all its rich and wondrous diversity. There’s more to life in Masterton than being able to find the perfect soy latte.
But back to that award. Part of the reason it occasioned such disbelief was that the phrase “Most Beautiful City” is a misnomer. For a start, Masterton’s technically not a city. You need 50,000 people for that, and we’re barely halfway there.
More to the point, the organisers weren’t using that word “beautiful” in the conventional sense. No one could claim that Masterton is richly endowed with scenic wonders, although it certainly makes the most of the assets it has. Even my Nelson friend admits to a fondness for Queen Elizabeth Park, where you can imagine the thwack of leather on willow even when there’s not a cricketer in sight.
This is the sort of thing the judges were getting at. They praised the town for its environmental and heritage conservation efforts, and for the strength of its “community engagement”.
I know what they mean, even if the sneerers don’t. It’s a place where people pitch in when there’s something that needs doing.
Trouble is, word seems to be getting out. Last year, Masterton’s population grew faster than any other place in the Greater Wellington region, other than the capital itself.
It’s certainly not one of those provincial zombie towns that you read about. Visitor numbers keep increasing, new housing consents are double what they were in 2016 and local builders are going gangbusters.
Most of the new arrivals are from Wellington and Auckland. Whatever Masterton’s got, they seem to like it.
But the town is changing to meet their requirements. There are now bars where you don’t have to drink Tui and we're about to get a classy boutique cinema. Traffic keeps building up and next thing you know, people will be demanding traffic lights.