Means to an Enz

by David Jarman / 20 March, 2004
A trip to Te Awamutu reveals to a British Split Enz fan just what inspired the groundbreaking group.

Elvis fans go to Graceland. Beatlemania has the Cavern Club. I will always prize my pilgrimage to Te Awamutu, on the trail of Neil and Tim Finn: songwriters whose melodies and lyrics were as important in my growing up as Eddie Izzard videos and Charlene Ramsay. Te Awamutu is a small town - straight roads, a locally famous church and a rose garden - but proud of its favourite sons.

Taking the night train from Wellington, I first saw the neat rows of suburbia around 6.30am, and we headed west into town. Clearly, they were anticipating another busy Saturday, so nothing was opening until 10, leaving time for a leisurely wander. I breakfasted in the park, cleaned my teeth and consulted my Rough Guide. It was still only about 7.30, so I had another stroll, and in my tired state barely registered the sedan parked inside the petrol-station shop, such was the calm manner of the staff sweeping up three plate-glass windows rearranged into a million shards. There were no alarms or running people, and the police must have had more pressing demands. The car among the crisps and magazines looked normal ...

Finally, it was 10 o'clock, and I entered the serene orderliness of the Visitor Information Centre. Of course they would look after my bag and, yes, they had information on the Finns, but I'd need to be quick because the museum closed at three. Busy Saturday, remember?

Many times over the next few hours I smiled to myself as I walked the same streets as a couple of lads who grew up and wrote songs: I was a million miles from my UK home, checking out their first house (now an old people's home), first school and old employers. As Roman cooking pots become museum pieces, so the mundane of yesterday is celebrated when pop culture becomes the new religion.

To the museum, subtitled "history never repeats". Such subtle homages are somewhat at odds with the Split Enz display inside: costumes and memorabilia from a group that shocked Malcolm McLaren in the 70s. A decorated paving slab rests against the wall: the inaugural, and so far only, part of a town walk of fame. Surely this was the place to buy my first Split Enz CD? Unfortunately, I couldn't find a shop selling one. Indeed, I couldn't find a shop that sold CDs. Have they all evolved to ipods here already?

I dozed among the roses for a bit, then sang the town's praises to the visitor centre staff before reclaiming my bag. Then off to the station: departure time to Auckland was 5.00pm. I was ready at 4.30.

Six o'clock and I'd exhausted the amusements of a lonely 100m stretch of platform, carpark and broken corrugated shed. Having continuously welded tracks successfully removes the clackety-clack, but also their ability to expand safely in the summer heat, unless the trains trundle at 40kph. Naturally, a vintage flame-red and brass English fire tender rolled up with its cargo of bride, groom, photographer and entourage. Poses were struck and photos taken, but then why restrict wedding memories to the platform when you can clamber down onto the tracks and sleepers? Word must have got out that there would be nothing coming along any time soon to cut the honeymoon short.

At eight o'clock, boredom descended with the dusk. Hallelujah for the runaway horse, the reins skipping against the sky and the stirrups bouncing with a freedom they were never meant to have. One horsepower was pursued by several hundred on four wheels. Dust billowed across the carpark, cinematic in the twilight. Hot on its hooves was a people carrier. "Have you seen a horse?" cried the passenger. Part baseball pitcher, part helpful citizen, I pointed the way. The vehicle accelerated away. A skidding halt, more dust and the passenger followed her ride on foot into a front garden: exit pursued by a jockey.

Surely my only surprise after that would be the eventual arrival of the train? It depends how much significance I should place on the four barefooted children who walked the same route as the horse. In silence they came, one after another in descending height order. What's more, they never returned.

With the sunset, the train arrived and my David Lynch experience concluded. Clearly, I can never go back; it couldn't be the same. Yet now I know why the smallest towns produce artists fit to take on the world. The planet must seem a grey, reserved place of insular cultures compared to the natural highs of their Pythonesque everyday upbringings. Outsiders can only catch glimpses, in lyrics and costumes. And occasional visits.

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