Palmerston North's predictable charm

16:00, Nov 17 2012

Billy TK slams his foot on the effects pedal and enters another solo, the song's third. With his long grey beard he reminds me of James K Baxter's Maori Jesus, though I am not close enough to check if his breath smells of mussels and paraoa.

Every time he strikes an open chord the elderly woman seated next to me is jolted upright, as if his Gibson guitar is plugged directly into her dialysis machine.

There are about 50 of us seated in a wing of Te Manawa Art Gallery in Palmerston North. We are gathered for the launch of a new website,, which trumpets the writers, artists and performers over which Palmerston North has some claim.

People like John Clarke, who brought us Fred Dagg before absconding to Australia, and Janet Frame, who lived quietly in Dahlia St for a couple of years as Janet Clutha, though her letterbox was often nicked.

Seated in front of me is a reporter from Palmy's free weekly, The Guardian. He looks eerily similar to the reporter who'd turn up at my primary school on gala days, or at the annual current events quiz I took too seriously in my early teens. (Later I'll discover this reporter isn't old enough to be the same guy, but I won't be able to shake the image of a closet full of clone reporters at the Guardian's offices on Broadway.)

As Billy TK's solo quavers on, my thoughts drift to a recent request from the Hutt News for a ''Twitter story'': A narrative using no more than 140 characters. After several false starts and an angry walk around the block, I settled on the following:


''I woke up in the year 3012. There were no flying cars, no meals in pills, no talking chimps. Then I saw the sign: WELCOME TO PALMERSTON NORTH.''

I can say this because I come from Palmerston North. Because, in a strange ''you can pick your friends but you can't pick your family'' way, I love Palmerston North. They can rejig the Square and overhaul the Plaza all they want; every time I return to my hometown it is the sameness, the familiarity, I seek out.

Once, encouraged by self-interested parties, I tried to write a column in defence of Palmerston North. It didn't work. ''If it's so great,'' I kept asking myself, ''why don't you live there?''

Better to leave the defence to James Brown (who, like me, now lives in Wellington) and his poem 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.''

After some time I realise Billy TK, creative giant standing on the shoulder of Hendrix, has finished his rendition.

The woman next to me remains tense, is in fact trembling, as if Billy's vibrato is still coursing through her nervous system. This, I decide, is Palmy's frequency - part ambition, part awkwardness. It is what I feel when I come back and when I leave.

You can take the boy out of Palmerston North, but you can't take Palmerston North out of the boy.

Craig Cliff is a writer and Palmerston North boy. He writes a fortnightly column.

The Dominion Post