Oamaru, Ye Olde Shopping Spot On The Way To Dunedin

So I’ve been back to Oamaru. Every 20 months or so the Oamaruchloridyans (technical term) in the neurons of my limbic system start vibrating and I start booking tickets to New Zealand, blindly ignoring the fact that my middle-aged body really doesn’t like being confined to the spaces of an A380 and an ancient 777 for twenty five hours. Why the highlight of the trip is of course always the reunification with the best antipodean friends one can have, there is the thrill of checking out how this neglected part of the southern hemisphere is doing.

This time things had happened in my absence: Oamaru won the contest of ‘sharpest town in New Zealand’ (whatever that means) and gained a 30 minutes feature showcasing its trippiness (technical term) on national TV. It also elected a new Mayor who –  while not particularly on my side of the political arena – knows the district well, has great new ideas for the place and wants the district to prosper. He already planted himself firmly in the council offices, getting his hands dirty in the day to day operational bits. Good stuff. The council has finally cleaned up the harbour and made it a place you actually want to visit. Hooray!
Then there is the Whitestone Civiv Trust. It owns seventeen of the buildings in the Victorian district and its vision is

Preserving and developing New Zealand’s most unique collection of historic buildings into a living ‘Victorian Town at Work’.

Well, the ‘at work’ bit has obviously now been buried. Harbour Street is now filled with shops selling the usual Kiwiana naff and some bloke who makes tiles. The last surviving traditional craftsman is the man who started it all: Michael O’Brien and Marie Grunke are still working away in his bookbindery but these days income seems to come mainly from tourists who want to have their picture taken with the funny bearded man behind the counter. Shame about that.

They have all come to buy a tea towel with a Tui on it.

They have all come to buy a tea towel with a Tui on it. Pic by -=EN=-

On the other hand, there is Scott’s Brewery. Purveryors of some lovely, lovely beer (including an amazing Koelsch) and the employer of probably the only head-brewer who could just as well model for Chanel. They unfortunately had to move into the only building in the harbour I hoped to see being torn down, but at least it was put to good use.

Functional. Think functionality. And Beer. Picture by Bread, Cakes and Ale

So, Oamaru has gained and lost. Gained a good mayor, a good brewery and an upgrade to the harbour. It has lost (as usual) more trees in its hinterland, its right to call itself a ‘Victorian Working Town’ and another bit of its distinctiveness.

In a few years, probably nothing will distinguish it from Timaru. Or even Ashburton.


Tales From The Malarooney Daddy. Zorch, Cats!

Just Ten Bucks!

I remember it vividly. It was a sunny Sunday morning, probably 2005 or 2006. I was slowly waking up from the relentless drone of chainsaws, lawn mowers and other powertools that rural Kiwis like to use on the weekends and as usual switched on the radio. The reassuring voice of Chris Laidlaw oozed out of the speaker, in glorious AM (New Zealand National Radio’s FM signal was notoriously unstable in Kakanui) and then suddenly a bloke with what sounded like a weird guitar and a bass drum started, well, not really singing, more rapping.  Sprouting lyrics like this:

A pterodactyl was a flying fool,

just a breeze flapping daddy of the old school,

but a mamadactyl could sure make him drool.

Ape Call! Dooblyaba!

Ape Call! Dooblyaba!

Don’t be a fool Joe: Go Ape!

Turns out it wasn’t a guitar, it was a bariton ukulele. And it wasn’t a bass drum, it was apparently his foot tapping the base of his microphone stand. And the chap singing it was Jimmy Drake, aka Nervous Norvus. There is little on this man on the interwebs, apart from two excellent articles by an equally mysterious chap called Phil Milstein who sketches a rather sorrowful biography of the man (see list of references). The saddest anecdote for me was the story of Drake’s first hit, the inspired ‘Transfusion’:

This is how Milstein tells it:

[…] it was big enough that the producers of The Ed Sullivan Show invited Drake to lip-sync to it on the Sunday night variety staple. To most performers, an offer to appear on Sullivan’s “really big shew” was a once-in-a-lifetime golden opportunity. But, according to Blanchard, “he chickened out. He was afraid to go — he wouldn’t appear in public.” Although the hitmaking part of his career was certainly doomed anyway, with that decision Jimmy Drake virtually plunged the fork into it.

After fading away from from the public interest, he continued to put little ads in music magazines, offering to record demos of other people’s songs. One song 10$, two songs 19$. And then he died, aged 56 of liver cirrhosis. Turns out he sought solace in booze just a tad too much.

On that Sunday in Kakanui I pledged to buy a bariton ukulele and play one of Drake’s ditties on the famous open mike night of the even more famous Pinguin Club with the world famous Bookbinder of Oamaru doing the Ape Call yodel. For some weird reason this never happened. It wasn’t that the three chords of ‘Ape Call’ weren’t easy to play (even for an absolute beginner like myself), but stage fright took over every time and so I still dream of one day performing the ‘Bullfrog Hop‘ or ‘The Fang‘.

At least I still play the Ukulele.

In the meantime, I will play my new EP of the original Dot recordings until the needle breaks or the best girlfriend ever throws the record out with the trash.



For more excellent reading on the wonderful Nervous Norvous, please check out these two of Phil Milstein’s many excellent articles:

It’s been so long.

Wonderful video, cracking tune, but I’ll never forgive Greg Johnson for cancelling his gig at the Penguin Club.

*shakes fist