A drink with a hometown hero

RICHARD SWAINSON
Last updated 12:38 10/01/2012

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Richard Swainson

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OPINION: In how many countries in the world would it be possible to have a drink with a person within a stone's throw of a statue that celebrates him?

Given the recent beautification of Eden Park, the name of Michael Jones comes to mind. I would not rate my chances of imbibing with that athlete turned insurance salesman, still less if it were a Sunday. Sharing a cold compress between injured knees would be the only kind of secular bonding experience likely with the Iceman.

Waikato and the King Country are strangely bereft of statues marking the region's rugby heritage. Where is the giant boot to symbolise that all-conquering career of Don Clarke?

The streets of Te Kuiti have no bronze pine for Meads worshippers to gather around. Even the World Cup exploits of the man of the hour Stephen Donald have yet to inspire a suitably cute representation.

Could not the deeds of Donald be commemorated with a wee, hairy, bug-toothed rodent, dressed in the national colours and frozen in the moment of wobbly penalty conversion? There would be some commercial merit in re-branding Hamilton as "The Home of Beaver".

Of course I jest. Hamilton city already has statues at either end of its main road that point to diverse cultural pursuits. North Victoria St enjoys the Bob Jones-financed edifice, an image to reflect Pakeha pioneering spirit, family values and all things rural.

At the south end of town things are a little different. The Riff Raff statue casts its shadow internationally.

At once an image of a character within a cult fiction and that character's multi-talented creator, the work champions the fact that our humble little city – perhaps the country's most maligned – shaped the consciousness of one who stirred the world.

It was my privilege a few weeks ago to celebrate the occasion of Richard O'Brien's New Zealand citizenship with the gentleman himself.

The fact that O'Brien wasn't technically a citizen when the Riff Raff statue was unveiled late in 2004 and, indeed, has struggled to be allowed to become one in the years since, is both a disgrace and somehow oddly appropriate.

Only an outsider to mainstream culture could have come up with something as iconoclastically brilliant as The Rocky Horror Show.

The distance between the bronzed farmers and the Weta Workshop creation is more than just physical: O'Brien's witty transgression of the lines that divide gender and sartorial taste could not be further removed from the official story of straitlaced colonisation.

On the afternoon and evening of his citizenship ceremony O'Brien was grace itself. However clear his satirical eye, however sharp the tongue, the man is a charmer, as at ease with politicians keen for the photo opportunity as he is with his at times awestruck fans.

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At the official mayoral reception O'Brien's reminiscences about 1950s' Hamilton were warm and heartfelt, his perspective on the development since betraying a keen, insightful interest in the city of his metallic doppelganger.

At one point in the night I was standing next to a cabinet in the mayor's office.

Inside the glass was memorabilia connected with the aforementioned Don Clarke, including a preserved piece of iconic footwear.

As Richard O'Brien approached I feared the worst.

Surely Riff Raff would have no interest in the national game?

In fact, the opposite proved to be the case. The great man quickened his pace when he realised exactly what was on display.

"Is that Don Clarke's boot?", he inquired. A charming story soon followed from the O'Brien childhood all about how Richard and his brother assumed pride of place in a Ranfurly Shield parade when fresh to the city more than a half century ago.

Whatever the accent and eccentricities of the transgendered star the longer the evening went on the more like a New Zealander he seemed. Shouting a group of strangers at the bar with the same generosity extended to his own family, serving his guests slices of the special cake the establishment spontaneously provided in his honour, expressing his opposition to titular honours and affinity with this country's egalitarian spirit, O'Brien's sort of company are social peers, not yes-men or sycophants.

When Time Warp began playing in the background he even mistook this for coincidence, looking me in the eye and asking if it was the movie soundtrack version of his theme song.

His bronze likeness might have stood across the road, but such humility bespoke citizenship more than any piece of paper.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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