Pukeahu Anthology

Mount Cook

My Brilliant Suburb (1985), David McGill and Grant Tilly’s collection of drawings and articles about Wellington, features broadcaster Peter Harcourt’s account of the shifting image and character of Mount Cook and his own changing relationship with his home suburb over time.

75,77 Wallace St, 1984.
75,77 Wallace St, 1984.
Drawing: Grant Tilly.

We were warned when we moved to Wellington’s Mount Cook area. “Don’t use the address ‘Mount Cook’,” they said. “Your mail will only go down south to the real Mount Cook.” Logically, that could imply we had come to live in a place that was unreal — sort of a local equivalent of Brigadoon. Was that so bad? The people of Brigadoon had made strangers welcome, shown them hospitality, drawn them into their community. We could say the same. Within a very short time we felt quite at home in Mount Cook.

I am a native of Wellington (a rare species, as I am frequently told), but my habitat was the northern part of the city. What was it A.A. Milne wrote? “You must never go down to the end of town without consulting me.” In the poem, the child forbade his mother. For me it was the other way round. When I was very small mothers still talked in hushed tones of Haining Street and its neighbourhood in a way that put it quite out of bounds. Mrs Dupree (mother of J.J.M.M.W.G.) had deliberately disobeyed her son — and had never been seen again. That sufficed. The south end of Cuba Street — Webb Street, Wallace Street, Hanson Street — I ventured there only once a year, in a family party, for the Winter Show. Ah, Mount Cook was a place of wonder then! But of the district itself I still knew very little.

As I grew up the Carillon and the Dominion Museum and Art Gallery were being built on Mount Cook. To my parents, it had been the site of the prison and the brickworks — inseparably joined because the convicts made the bricks, marked with the sign of the arrow. They found it hard to adjust to years of hard labour making way for culture and remembrance. Yet it certainly raised the status of all that lay around. In my youth I began to enter the forbidden territory. What had always been made to seem faintly disreputable proved, on closer inspection, to have a character of its own. Different, yes — but not necessarily dubious. With my dog I walked through Aro Street, up Nairn Street, down Hankey Street, into Taranaki Street, back along the wharves. I liked what I saw.

Now I live in Mount Cook, hardly a stone’s throw from the grey grandeur of the Museum, the austere loneliness of the Carillon. Summer Saturdays can echo with the roar of grandstanders watching cricket at the Basin Reserve. In the mornings I can look down across a harbour that glitters in the sunshine or foams angrily under the lash of the wind. The Tararuas loom in the distance. In the foreground, Te Aro flat offers endless points of interest for the inveterate identifier of landmarks — or even for those who simply enjoy looking down on a lifesize Monopoly board.

Within walking distance are the Mount Cook Café (for inner satisfaction), Central Park (for exercise) and the Nairn Street Colonial Cottage (for remembrance of things past). Further off, but still comparatively close at hand, are the Penthouse Cinema (a Mecca for the film faithful) and beyond it what the city council calls euphemistically “the landfill”. Life isn’t all a matter of gracious living, and in today’s throwaway society it helps to have the tip more or less at your back door.

All in all, I like being in Mount Cook. It may not have the spectacular appeal of its tourist-oriented southern namesake; but then, nor does it have the climate and the inaccessibility of the “real thing”. As an urban creature I find it very comforting to be able to say that I live in Mount Cook knowing that I can walk home without crampons or climbing boots. But I must say, looking northwards over Thorndon from my southerly vantage point, I often wonder what my mother would have thought.

Wellington Winter Show and exhibition of N.Z. manufactures. Brighter and better than ever. Come and bring the family, 1929.
Wellington Winter Show and exhibition of N.Z. manufactures. Brighter and better than ever. Come and bring the family, 1929.
Eph-E-SHOW-1929-01. Alexander Turnbull Library.