On Being a Provincial

Ian Richards

Return to No Frills NZ Literature home page.


I was born in Palmerston North in 1958 and grew up there in a typical white weatherboard house on the edge of town. I don't know what my hometown's population was when I was born, but the number was probably not far below today's total of 77,000 people. New Zealand law defines a city as a town with more than 20,000 inhabitants, and Palmerston North has fitted into this category since 1930. And so I grew up in a city--that was what I believed--though not a city as many people conceive of it. Behind the house across the street from ours there was a sheep farm. I even used to walk past the fence of a dairy farm in our neighbourhood on the way to the nearest store, which was itself called a dairy. In New Zealand English a neighbourhood store is usually referred to as a 'dairy' because for many years only these shops could sell milk products and other perishable goods after normal trading hours. Long before I knew about the complex mechanisms behind the origins of language, my location meant that this word made perfect sense to me. I still remember a large cow's black-and-white face coming down over the fence, to examine the little boy passing by.

But I'm already giving a false impression. I didn't grow up on a farm, milking cows before breakfast, as my father did. I was never really familiar with farm animals; the sheep and dairy farms around us were soon replaced by housing developments as I grew older. My childhood environment was, in fact, suburban. But the scale of everything in Palmerston North was so small that my parents had no qualms about letting me ride the bus on my own, at age ten, into the centre of town and back--and, indeed, nothing bad ever happened. Yet I thought of my hometown as big. It was bigger than Shannon, Ashhurst and Sanson, the tiny, one-street towns in the countryside on each of the main roads out of Palmerston North. These were places we always disdained, as we passed them in our family car on the way to somewhere important.

When I was nineteen years old, I became a student at Canterbury University in Christchurch, and I felt that I'd arrived in a true city at last. I was beginning to feel too grown-up for Palmerston North. Today Christchurch has 350,000 inhabitants, and even back then when I was a student it was certainly a larger and more interesting place than my hometown. I soon began thinking of myself as 'from Christchurch'. In my second-year at university my French-literature teacher introduced us to Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea, an exotic book which had a great influence on me at that time. I was impressed by Sartre's Parisian contempt for the provincial town in which the story's main character, Roquentin, leads his humdrum existence. And so I was deeply confused--even shocked--when our teacher pointed out that Sartre would have thought of Christchurch as a provincial town. I'd yet to learn that size is relative. People everywhere can be sensitive about this sort of thing. Nowadays I live in Osaka, in Japan, and several years ago I visited London and remarked to some friends there on how quiet London was after Osaka--I still remember the look of annoyance on their faces.

Palmerston North would sound like a country town to people in Osaka, but it is, of course, New Zealand's eighth-largest city. It's a place of some limited importance, and New Zealanders refer to it as 'provincial'. 'Provincial', in New Zealand English, is a vague term for places that are not main centres like Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch or Dunedin. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines 'province' as referring to 'parts of a country outside the capital'. Dr Johnson's dictionary describes 'provincial' as 'rude; unpolished'; but in this essay I don't intend confining myself to the dictionary definitions of the word. In modern New Zealand usage, I think, any definition of the provinces seems to stop short of the bush and farms, and also of country towns like Shannon, Ashhurst and Sanson where farming really is central to people's lives. In New Zealand, the provinces are defined by a sense of their intermediacy: too small for cities, too big for country towns. I believe this may hold true for the rest of the modern world as well: that nowadays 'provincial' comes somewhere between 'urban' and 'rural'. And though ideas of large and small might be more extreme in Britain or Japan, where Palmerston North would be merely a place to drive through and disdain, I think the provinces exist in every country and can be named by local people.

If you accept my definition, then provincial people grow up in an intermediate condition and, because of this, one of their main characteristics is their adaptability. On the whole, they're more familiar with country ways than metropolitan types. They're quicker to adjust to farm living. In the same fashion, everyone is aware of the long tradition of a nation's provinces supplying the metropolis with talented people--people who soon become thoroughly urban themselves. Stendhal and Balzac, two more exotic French novelists whom I studied and liked at university, both came to Paris from the provinces and became writers at the literary centre. At little Canterbury University I wanted to follow, in every sense of the term, in their footsteps. Stendhal never referred to his provincial Grenoble except with Parisian contempt, and Balzac's massive Human Comedy is essentially a Paris-centred work. But in their energetic determination to make good, and in their ability to examine city life and manners with a slightly naive detachment, both writers retained some of the strengths of their provincial background. Yes, provincial people are adaptable--and this is possible because their sense of intermediacy makes them feel invisible: they come from both everywhere and nowhere. They already understand that, to city-dwellers, their accents will seem only a little rough and there'll be no embarrassing sheep dung on their shoes. They imagine that, to country-dwellers, they will seem only a little affected and with no special qualms about dirt. Because it feels like no background at all, a provincial background can be a useful thing--provided you move out of the provinces.

A recent poem by James Brown, titled 'I Come from Palmerston North', makes effective use of this idea of intermediacy--though I believe I like the poem for mainly sentimental reasons. The poem's tone switches between insecurity and self-compensatory pride, but neither view is to be taken too seriously, I think. After the poet has begun by describing a series of distinctly small-town achievements, related to his own youth, the scale of Palmerston North suddenly expands to something more apparently metropolitan.

1994 was the year Palmerston North changed its subtitle from
Rose City to Knowledge City. I do not know if Mayor Rieger
was responsible for this or not.

Palmerston North sports a teachers college and a university, plus
the Universal College of Learning, the International Pacific College and
the Adidas Institute of Rugby.
Knowledge City probably wasn't any one person's idea.

In the next stanza the poem returns to small-town achievements once more: having a good stock-car team and being the hometown of a popular bass-guitar player. At last, Brown begins to sum up being from Palmerston North in a way that requires the reader to decide on the poet's attitude to the place.

I come from Palmerston North. We are a modest people,
but we are fiercely proud of the bustling, go-ahead city
at the heart of the Manawatu Plains.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's boastful 'Kansas City', where 'You can walk to privies in the rain/ And never wet your feet!' makes its ironic tone obvious, but how much is Brown being sincere? To talk of Palmerston North's citizens as a 'people' in the world--note his use of the indefinite article--is clearly an over-the-top claim, and yet the town's citizens do share their common experience.

For the reader, deciding on the exact balance of the poet's opinion is difficult. This is because of the difficulty in gauging Palmerston North's size from the information the poet provides. Readers in Auckland, for example, know that none of the educational organisations named is large by New Zealand standards, particularly those with the most grandiose titles. But a New Yorker, reading this poem, might reasonably conclude that Palmerston North's people are indeed being 'modest', because a city with five educational institutions probably is a 'bustling, go-ahead' place, without much irony intended by the poet. And so to what degree the conclusion is ironic, or sincere, depends on how much outside knowledge of Knowledge City you can bring to the poem. Of course, the ambivalence of the ending reflects ambivalent views of a provincial place, both as seen by the people who live there and by outsiders. But I note that James Brown lives in Wellington nowadays.

I think this sort of classification--urban, provincial, rural--can apply at the level of nations, as well. New Zealand is certainly a provincial nation, because it's not large enough to compare with Britain or the nations of continental Europe, but it's too big to group with Samoa or Tahiti. Having a rural-based economy, New Zealand is always at the bottom of any ranking of developed nations, not comfortably part of the first world, but obviously not part of the developing world either. The 'poor white trash of Asia' was an expression used in the 1980s that caught our sense of insecurity. This casual, and perhaps naive, categorisation of my whole country as provincial is at odds with the over-compensatory pride many New Zealanders display, but I believe most of my fellow countrymen would concede their status in relation to other countries, if pressed. The relativism of size makes all this slippery, but it does matter. It's fashionable to talk these days about New Zealand being a Pacific nation--we claim to have cut our ties to the British after wanting so desperately and for so long to be connected with them--but New Zealand has noticeably few points of comparison with the islands of the Pacific. I don't think that New Zealanders really want to define themselves among Fijians and Kanaks, and the result is ambivalence and provincialism.

Admittedly, this is a poorly-developed argument. By a 'provincial' nation do I mean population size, economics, culture or something else? My view here comes merely from a series of impressions arising from these sorts of categories. But if such a classification truly exists, then are other countries provincial--for example, Australia? I confess, my inability to refine my terms of argument makes it impossible for me to pass judgement; and also because, with my background, Australia looks like an attractively large nation with a big economy and a metropolitan culture. 'Australia's boring cousin' is another common expression for a New Zealand that increasingly wants to hitch its wagon to its neighbour's star. In any event, impressions add up. Last month I received a local-government letter from my hometown, addressed to my apartment in Osaka, which demanded that I appear at the Palmerston North law courts for jury service. It helpfully noted that my bus fare could be paid to and from the courthouse. Because failure to appear for jury service is an offence and liable to a stiff fine--a fine which just might grow at a punitive interest rate if unpaid in my absence--I was forced to write back and find reasons to be excused. By any standards of reckoning, I think we New Zealanders remain a provincial case.

Along with provincial intermediacy as a nation also comes a sense of invisibility. When I was growing up, it was a commonplace to say that New Zealand didn't have a culture. At my primary school, further along the road from those farms I mentioned and the dairy, we were once put into groups and set the task of describing attributes of other countries. I remember we happily talked about India's hungry multitudes, the huge cars owned by Americans, and Japanese people's kimonos; we were naively mixing population size, economics and culture. But describing New Zealand in any way stumped our group. It's long been argued by New Zealand academics that, as a nation of mostly British migrants, we simply haven't been able to see our new land, because we brought British geographical and historical perspectives along with us. That's true, of course, but even when I was a boy we knew what Britain was. We could describe its attributes--cockney people, double-decker buses, Scottish kilts--and so we were never as blind to New Zealand's differences from Britain as has often been claimed. It wasn't that we saw ourselves as British, but rather that we couldn't see ourselves as New Zealanders. Our fresh, seven-or-eight-year-old minds examined our world and could see nothing that was not middling, nothing out of the ordinary. And we had no established heritage to help us.

In fact, there's not much of a wider heritage anywhere that examines the specific qualities of provincialism--certainly not as I've defined it. In nineteenth-century writing, young provincial men often head for the big city and learn hard truths, and occasionally writers like Balzac bring city people to the countryside where they are shocked by the meanness they discover. But provincialism is extremely rare as a central topic in literature, and it's usually been distinguished by the adversarial approach writers have taken to the subject. Among many other innovations, Flaubert's Madame Bovary is probably the first novel to try to get to the heart of provincial life. Flaubert, who was born outside Paris in Rouen, found in the provinces the perfect target for his hatred of mediocrity. Writing from Emma Bovary's provincial, middling viewpoint (which we readers are expected to judge as inadequate to civilised life), Flaubert contrives the steady decline of the poor woman's fortunes with a relentless cruelty. Later George Eliot, in the aptly named Middlemarch, tried to go a step further in examining the various ways provincial society might shape character. But the result is still misery for anyone in her fictional town who does not step outside that society's mores. In the twentieth century it's true that a large number of writers, from James Joyce through to J.M. Coetzee, have chosen to describe critically their provincial backgrounds. We even have a literary tradition, deriving from this, called the 'regional novel'. But such writers have seldom tried to analyse the provincial condition in itself. Instead, like their nineteenth-century counterparts, they typically portray the provinces as a trap, to be escaped from before real living can start--usually in the metropolis, though sometimes in a rural arcadia. They're seldom interested in finding any of the boundaries of provincialism. And so most of these writers fail to make any distinction between provincial people and that other middling group, the bourgeoisie. The middle classes, who make up a large part of any capital city's population, are disdained in twentieth-century literature for being both more and less cultivated than they should be, just like provincials. In our cultural climate, the middle is always fair ground for a remarkably unreflective attack, and this, paradoxically, is a provincial attitude.

Even a New Zealand novel like The God Boy, by Ian Cross, locates its criticism of the narrowness of local life within the provinces. Published in 1957, The God Boy is a sort of Catcher in the Rye for New Zealand readers, though a much darker version. Like Salinger's book, it relies on the revelations of a young and naive narrator; and similarly to Salinger, the strength of the novel is not in the rather contrived plot but in the psychological immediacy of the narrator's voice. Thus we hear Jimmy Sullivan describing his hometown:

Our town, you know that place, Raggleton, way down there by the sea, was a big place, no village in the country. It had a hotel two stories high, and two barbershops, and there were pictures twice a week. There must be well over a thousand people living there.

Jimmy's description of Raggleton is like my own of Palmerston North, but with the scale a little diminished, so that New Zealand readers might recognise the town as appropriately small. A population of a thousand puts Raggleton at the bottom of any ranking of provincial towns in the 1950s, but Jimmy is essentially correct: Raggleton is still too big by New Zealand standards for anything like a 'village'. (The word 'village' is artfully embedded for overseas readers; it's a British expression that we New Zealanders don't use for classifying towns.) When the novel was first published, Aucklanders (though perhaps not New Yorkers) would have understood all this because of the care with which Cross settled on the size of Raggleton, so that the town would fit both his narrator's thinking and his readers' frame of reference. In the same way, nowadays, New Zealand readers implicitly understand the Auckland contempt which Stephanie Johnson's recent satirical novel, The Shag Incident, displays towards bohemians pursuing a countrified lifestyle on provincial Waiheke Island. New Yorkers would just see them as yokels in the middle of nowhere and miss the humour.

Can the provinces change? Only with a change of scale: by becoming larger and cosmopolitan, and thus not provincial at all. The same holds true for nations. When immigration into New Zealand from Asia outstripped immigration from Britain, in 2002 and 2003, the government introduced an English-language test for would-be migrants. And so, by 2004, New Zealand's migrants became predominantly British once more. British immigrants, being white, do not disturb our comfortable sense of intermediacy and invisibility. But an Iranian refugee who came to New Zealand for eight years, and whose claim for permanent residence failed, was hunted for eighteen months by the police until he eventually gave himself up. The man claimed that during eight years in New Zealand he broke no other law than overstaying his visa, ran a small business and paid taxes. The New Zealand government denies none of this, but the man has been deported. It seems he's not the kind of person we want in our country. What's more, because the man was hidden for some time by relatives who have New Zealand residence status, the government is considering a change of legislation. It may become a criminal offence to harbour people who want to continue living in New Zealand. All this explains why it is New Zealand's destiny to remain a provincial nation, unlike, say, America.

Prior to the twentieth century, Henry James wrote mysteriously that to be an American is 'a complex fate'; and he then chose to focus his novels not on American provincial society but on provincial Americans living abroad: energetic and naive people of European origin, facing up to where they came from. However, in the twentieth century mass immigration from all around the world changed America. The idea of American culture being still somehow British-based, or even remotely connected to western Europe, became more and more untenable. American provincialism faded when America ceased to be a place characterised by its bland sense of intermediacy and invisibility. American writers, looking out of their windows at people passing by, as writers do, realised they were facing something distinctive and new within their own nation. It's no surprise that America's view of itself developed in the cosmopolitan metropolis. And academics have frequently observed that even cowboys, as we all conceive of them, are the invention of writers and film-makers in cities, who saw something different in the countryside which they could use. The 'cowboy' world is a romantic, metropolitan notion, borrowed from the ranges of Texas and then imposed onto the blandness of ordinary life--everyone knows that its glamour derives from Hollywood. I knew that too, in my intermediate and invisible state, long before I could understand the complex mechanisms behind all this. And that's why it was the game of 'cowboys' that I played as a little boy in the city of Palmerston North. I was surrounded by cows and sheep, but I was trying to imagine myself into exotic places, other times and other cultures, where real life might start.

Copyright Ian Richards, 2004

Return to No Frills NZ Literature home page.