Barry Humphries, John Clarke, John Cleese, Palmerston North

Hanging in Palmerston North

Iris was manning the Taiwanese stand at the Palmerston North Festival of Cultures last Saturday, so I drove up to join her for the weekend.

Not for nothing is Palmerston North not known as the Manhattan of the Manawatu – though the festival revealed it to be more of a multicultural Mecca than I’d realised. 

But I do think its reputation as New Zealand’s Suicide Capital is a tad overstated.

That said, I couldn’t help but smile at a local photographer’s choice of studio name (above).

As for the unfair dismissal of New Zealand’s seventh largest conurbation as boring, I think it’s important to compare apples with apples.

Or in this case, Palmerstons with Palmerstons.

When we compare Palmerston North with the world’s three other Palmerstons (if you don’t count Darwin, which used to be called  Palmerston), we get a totally different picture altogether.

We see that it’s far and away more exciting than at least one of them.

Palmerston North makes Palmerston in the South Island look like a small country town –  notwithstanding the latter’s impressive artificial moa (below).

Moa and war memorial, Palmerston, Otago.

Google searches for other Palmerstons yield a small city in the Northern Territory (not far from the aforementioned state capital and former Palmerston, and close to an even earlier Palmerston that appears to have been discontinued) and a small town in, of all places, Wellington County, Ontario.

Pictorial searches reveal the interesting coincidence that both the surviving Australian and the Canadian Palmerstons are distinguished by their unusually prominent water towers.

The water towers of Palmerston, Northern Territory
(left) and Palmerston, Ontario.

This revelation is, I think, a strong clue that pound for pound, icon for icon, person for person, Palmerston for Palmerston, there seems little doubt that New Zealand’s northernmost Palmerston  is not only the most populous, but also the most vibrant  Palmerston on the planet.

Probably ever. 

(Not counting the one that became Darwin.)

Boring? I don’t think so.

The Suicide Capital tag was, of course, coined by John Cleese, who  opined that “If you ever want to kill yourself but lack the courage, I think a visit to Palmerston North will do the trick.”

What Cleese did not realise was that he’d insulted the home town of New Zealand’s equivalent of himself, one John (Fred Dagg) Clarke.

(Even his name is similar, as is his reputation as his country’s funniest comic product – with the possible exception of the haka.)

And the proudly parochial Palmerstonian JC responded immediately from his home in Melbourne with the suggestion that the city landfill be renamed The John Cleese Memorial Rubbish Dump.

Not to be outdone by their favourite son, one of the locals went one better and christened the tip’s topmost garbage heap Mt Cleese.

But Johns Cleese and Clarke are not the only funny men to have utilised Palmerston North for comic effect.

Some years earlier, Clarke’s idol Barry Humphries decided that Dame Edna Everage’s dowdy, lugubrious bridesmaid Madge Allsop should also be a born and bred (and somewhat battered) Palmerstonian.

But this time, the local signwriters had got in first. By an astonishing coincidence,  since 1920 – before Barry, Madge, or even the ancient actress who played Madge, the late Emily Perry, were born – the local Palmerston North bus company had been known as Madge Coachlines.

The Student City’s homage to the Arabic numbering system?
Pompeii pizzeria behind.

Our weekend in Palmerston North was pleasant enough.

The Festival of Cultures allowed us to sample a range of cuisines, some of it edible.

To my wife’s relief, I suppressed my strong instinct to enter the  Saudi Arabian tent and enquire as to whether their schedule of  entertainments in the Square that afternoon would include any stonings or beheadings.

For dinner, since we’d just despatched stepson on a European tour that would take in Pompeii – one town that makes Palmerston North look very much alive – it seemed appropriate to try the  restaurant of the same name. 

That’s it above, behind what appears to be the Student City’s  homage to the Arabic numbering system.

Unfortunately we picked a night when the Palmy Pompeii was experiencing one of its most deafening and violent eruptions – a  seething mass of Massey undergraduates who’d decided to lay waste both to this pizzeria and their fellow diners’ eardrums.

Not bad grub though.

The John Cleese connection continued when I got chatting with the  eccentric Scottish owner of our motel, the Supreme Motor Lodge (which I chose and recommend for its private spa pools).  

When I asked the way to Mt Cleese, he not-so-subtly let slip that he himself had acquired the mantle of New Zealand’s Basil Fawlty.

I then realised I was in the presence of the legendary motelier who’d imposed a lifetime ban on the entire population of  Wainuiomata. 

When I asked him whether he’d eject me if I were to now admit to a Wainui address, he fixed me with a wild-eyed Caledonian glare and rumbled, “Absolutely!”

I was curious to know what scale of atrocities had given rise to  such a deep-rooted loathing.

“After all,” I mused, showing solidarity with the standard Scots prejudice, “it’s not as though Wainui is infested with Englishmen.”

“It’s even worse than that,” he growled, seeming to plunge into the post-traumatic hell of a witness to a wartime massacre.

He then recounted three separate Wainuiomartian invasions when his establishment had been systematically ransacked by Nappy Valley neanderthals.

The culprits came from the suburb’s high school, touch club, and another institution whose name escapes me.

Now as my advertising hero Bill Bernbach used to say, a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.

And this guy’s got principles, because, he told me, he recently turned down a $17,500 booking from the Wainuiomata Darts Club.

I believe that’s called slinging out the arrows and an outrageous fortune.

Another linguistically quirky sign to catch my eye last weekend was this one on an otherwise nondescript Korean restaurant.

Students of French will have spotted that De Coree (albeit with an acute over the first ‘e’) is French for Korean.

Why give a French name to a Korean restaurant in New Zealand? Je ne sais pas.


3 thoughts on “Hanging in Palmerston North

  1. I’ve read the criticisms of Palmerston North and have thought they were too harsh.

    I don’t know why people think that Palmerston North is so dull. The square has been done up and is modern and stylish now and Palmerston North hasn’t fallen into the trap of being gimmicky like other cities.

    We’ve got small town theater productions at cheap prices, picturesque parks and restaurants that have plenty of ambiance. If you visit again, I’d recommend the Aqaba Bar or Elm Cafe for lunch/brunch. Or you could always try the UCOL trainee restaurant, Ambitions.

    I’m from Lower Hutt, Susan, so I know all about undeserved poor reputations. (It was a great place to grow up with its parks and being able to bike everywhere, just like Palmerston North.)

    But if you’ve got a name for ANYTHING, that’s more than most towns and you should play on it.

    One of PN’s strengths is that it’s got all these comic associations, not just as the butt of jokes by some of the funniest men who ever lived, but also as the home town of NZ’s funniest man, probably the second-funniest (Tom Scott) and other comics that I once made a mental note of, but now forget.

    I was in New York once and made a beeline for Lindy’s restaurant, which boasted the worst food and rudest service in Manhattan.

    I just had to try it and see if it was as bad as they promised. I remember I admonished them for being too polite and their food too palatable, but it was all in fun.

    And all around the walls were these wonderfully sardonic one-liners that kept me amused even though I was dining alone.

    Palmerston North should make the most of its boring reputation and trade on it – just as Taihape makes great play of its gumboots and Bulls with all its bull-shops.

    The Suicide Capital is not appropriate for obvious reasons, but the John Cleese, Madge Allsop, John Clarke and Tom Scott links should be exploited to the full – maybe with a Comedy Museum to go with the Rugby Museum.

    Get that mutual admiration society Clarke and Humphries to open it.

  2. I like your idea. So much so that I forwarded web page to the Palmerston North Mayor.

    Your story about dining in the worst restaurant, reminded me of a faux pas I made in a restaurant. I had made a last minute decision to dine out with my partner. When we arrived at the restaurant, a spur of the moment choice, a formally dressed maitre de greeted us and took us through to the restaurant. The restaurant was at most mediocre compared to the others in town but the waiter wasn’t, he belonged in a fancy French restaurant. I had a discount voucher for one of our meals, which I thoughtlessly produced and from that point forward I found out that you get you second class service, if you use discount vouchers.

    Really enjoy reading your blog.

    Why thank you Susan. That waiter does indeed sound French. Just for you, I will soon post a poem I wrote about an experience in a French restaurant – not first class I’m afraid.

    I’m pleased to report a much more accepting attitude from Logan Brown last week, where I was cheeky enough to present both a discount voucher and an Entertainment Card.

    (I suppose I ought to confess at this point that the chef and voucher donor was my son.)

    Anyway, spread the word and I look forward to a flurry of interest from the Suic- I mean Comedy Capital 🙂

  3. well I lived in Palmy for two years: 2013 and 2014. In 2013 I lived at uni dorm, never ran out of fun because I had party almost at every weekend.

    and then 2014 came, my friends scattered in the city, I finally experienced the real, boring palmy. It was probably the dullest moment in my life, no kidding. I counted the days when I would finish my study.

    if I had a choice I would have lived in wellington though. It was a very lovely town. I miss wellington more than palmy

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